A boy with a rare heart condition, a single mom who will try anything to save him, a cynical but loving uncle, a doctor who has suffered his own personal tragedy: these are the four main characters in Mary Curran Hackett’s thought-provoking new novel Proof of Heaven.
It’s a book with a fascinating premise: the little boy Colm has a rare condition in which his heart and his brain are at war with each other, which causes him to “die” at random moments before being resuscitated. This dying gives him a certain perspective on faith, one that is at odds with the beliefs of his mother Cathleen, who hangs onto the Catholic faith of her childhood as a way to find solace for herself and healing for her little boy. It’s a beautiful read; the plot (especially the ending) really made me think about spirituality, about what it means to believe in heaven and how exactly to define heaven in the first place. There’s a lot to chew on in this story, and I love how the characters each bring a different perspective to the big questions we all ponder. (I’ve also decided that I want a doctor like the fabulous Dr. Basu!).
So it’s an honor to have the author Mary Curran Hackett here as a guest, sharing some fascinating insights about the experience of writing (and in some cases, living) the novel. Welcome, Mary, and congratulations on the new book!
As you explain on your website, the story of Proof of Heaven was inspired in part by your own heart condition, as well as by a terrifying experience in which your infant son suddenly lost consciousness. What was it like to write about real-life experiences as fiction?
I have always found it much safer to write fiction than nonfiction. I feel a bit more free to express my feelings, because I don’t have to worry whether or not I am remembering things perfectly or if I am causing some harm to another person whom I know and love by revealing too much. So whenever I need to process something I turn the real into the unreal and remove myself completely. Once I let my characters take over, I find it so liberating. I actually wrote the first chapter of my book, as somewhat of a purge, an exercise really. I didn’t even see it as a “chapter” of anything. I had no intention of writing a book. In fact it was entirely coincidental that I found the file several years later.
What was the most challenging part of writing the book?
Staying awake. I wrote the book in a two–week burst after an agent, who read what is now the first chapter, asked for the entire book. Only problem: I didn’t have an entire book. I knew I had to take advantage of a “yes” from an agent, and so I told her I needed a couple of weeks to “tidy up the manuscript.” (What I really needed to do was write the book.) Long story short: I worked every night for two weeks and wrote straight through 2 weekends. I also did it all with my children underfoot. I still had to drop them off and pick them up at school, go to work, make meals, move laundry––and everything in between you can imagine a mother needs to do on any given day. I also was working as an editor and teaching two classes at University of Cincinnati at the time too. My husband was super helpful though and stepped in every night at 6:30 after he arrived home from work. He cleaned up after dinner and helped with the kids’ homework and their nighttime routine. I wrote till dawn, slept a couple of hours, got up and went to work––and started all over again each night. I finished the book two weeks after I started it on October 31st, 2009, just a few minutes before I took the kids out to Trick–Or–Treat. (I promptly crashed sideways on my bed afterward and slept for 18 hours).
I really love your descriptions of Assisi, home of St. Francis. Was that section based on a real pilgrimage?
Thank you! I loved writing that chapter. Assisi made it easy. I just had to write what I saw. And magic just happens––because, well, it’s Assisi. I had traveled there several years ago for my job as a book editor for St. Anthony Messenger Press. The Province was kind enough to send me there to understand the Franciscan mission and history. Because I spend a lot of time editing books about Francis and Clare, I initially saw the trip less as a pilgrimage and more as a “research” trip for my daily work. But it turned into being so much more. I made wonderful friends, fell in love with Italy, and as it turns out, I came home with a lot of material for a novel I had not even known I would one day write.
Faith is such a huge part of the book, and it’s something that so many of us struggle to understand and hold onto. If you had to share one thing that you know for sure about faith, what would you say?
You know, I think this is a fascinating question. While I think faith is part of the book, I actually think it plays a small part. Funny? I know the title itself might lead people to think I am going to telling people what to believe, and perhaps some are hoping I prove heaven’s existence (or at the very least my proof matches up with theirs), but I had an entirely different objective and perspective. The characters all have different experiences and paths, and therefore different ideas about what faith, love, and life is or isn’t. To answer your question though: For me, the only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing. (Yes, I ripped that from Socrates. But it’s true.) That’s why I tend to say “I believe” and not “I know” when it comes to talking about faith. All I can say is I’m in it with the rest of the world––I am just wishing, hoping, praying and trying to do my best every day to be a good person and not mess up my kids (and the world) too much while I am trying to figure it all out.
In the book, Cathleen’s faith is instilled in her by her mother, and Cathleen in turn tries to share that faith with her son. What’s one spiritual tradition that you learned from your mom and are now passing to your own kids?
Oh, wow. My mom is big on tradition and spirituality. I am afraid I am a terrible protégé in that regard. She prayed the Rosary every day, went to Mass nearly as much. She also went through a stack of prayer cards before she even got out of bed in the morning. She worked for the church, and spent most evenings when she wasn’t with her eight kids at some church–related event. She also had more Jesus and Mary going on in our hallways and bedrooms than most modern churches do today. As a kid, I thought it was all a bit much. She was entitled to her devoutness though and that’s what worked for her, but it’s not something that works for me and my family. In fact I did try to put a statue of Mary in my bedroom and my husband thought it was a bit freaky (Full disclosure: the statue was encased in glass, lace–trimmed and gilded! He had a point. Needless to say, my mom took it off my hands last time she was in town.) While I don’t say the rosary with my kids, we always say a prayer together at dinner and we always talk about something going on in the world––just like my mom did with us. I love to hear what my kids are praying for, what they’re thinking about, what their doubts are, and how they’re learning how to be compassionate, grateful, and a part of the world that is so much bigger than them.