- Kathryn L. Williams
Gian Sardar, Writer
With intuition, psychic tendencies, synchronicity and signs leading the way, Gian Sardar is a dream of a novelist. Sometimes even literally, as her debut novel, “You Were Here,” centers on a young woman plagued by a recurrent, being-buried-alive nightmare. Part double mystery and part love triangle, Gian’s lyrical prose artfully weaves past and present and builds layer upon layer into a suspenseful story.
Gian’s own life is rather page-turning. At age 5 she foretold an earthquake, and her psychic path has lead to predicting a death, discovering a spirit guide, and remembering past life adventures. Perhaps it’s small surprise that Gian even co-wrote a friend’s memoir, “Psychic Junkie.” As Gian says, “I think accessing your subconscious is anybody's secret weapon… it's a great tool for writers.”
Gian spoke to me from her Los Angeles home where she writes, tends her rose-filled garden sanctuary, and lives with her husband, son, and “insane” dog, Onyx. Our conversation ranged from dreams, spirituality, and her sense of connection and fate, to the very scary evening when a burrito craving nearly got her shot – or perhaps saved her.
RG: Gian, I am excited to talk to you! You're an author who wrote a terrific debut novel, ‘You Were Here,’ published by Putnam, and previously wrote a book called ‘Psychic Junkie.’ I read your great essay in ‘The New York Times’ last year on inspirational signs that show up in your life, and then another essay you wrote for ‘Salon’ called, ‘In My Father's Iraq, His Garden Was a Sanctuary.’ Before we talk about your writing, your online bios all say that you live in Los Angeles, have a husband, a son and an insane dog! Will you tell me the great story about adopting your dog?
GS: Yes! Well as I mentioned in ‘The New York Times’ essay, I tend to look for signs everywhere I go, they kind of remind me that I'm in the right place and on the right path, or actually whether it's right or wrong who knows, but it's where I'm meant to be. And so one of the things that was going on was that I had a cat whose name was Onyx, she was black, go figure, and she was something that I actually inherited from my old roommate. I tend to take in pets as they find me and she was one of them. She needed a home and so she ended up living with me for years and years and years and when she was I think 21 years old – she could have even been older and set some record – she ended up dying and it was very tragic for me and my husband, and for my son it was his first animal that he really paid attention to and had known and loved so it was really hard. And I had always wanted a dog. We finally had a house, we had a huge yard, I had grown up with a lab shepherd mix and knew it was a breed that I really wanted.
So about two weeks after Onyx the cat died I was on a Facebook group for my neighborhood and saw people complaining about their neighbor who had just surrendered their dog, a black shepherd lab mix whose name was Onyx. He was being taken off to the pound and going to the very high kill shelter. People were begging for help for him, and I took one look at his name, and him, and thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is it, we have to go check out this dog! It's a sign.' And so we met him and the first thing he did was bond with my son and bark at us to protect our son, which we liked because he really loved the kid and was obviously protective of him, and it was amazing to see. I just kind of knew everything was right and we just went for it. So that's how we ended up with Onyx the dog. His name was Onyx, he came with that name, and he's actually looking at me right now trying to figure out why I'm talking about him!
RG: I love that story. I love the synchronicity of it. But you've had so many interesting things like that happen in your life.
GS: Yeah. Some of it is because I pay attention to it, and I think that more people would probably see similar patterns and so-called coincidences if they looked for them. I happen to be really interested in those things and tend to rely on them so I am looking for them. But at the same time I think maybe I'm, I don't know, maybe in a way I'm kind of creating them in my mind. Maybe I'm putting them out there into the universe and they're coming back to me, but whatever it is I've definitely always paid attention to these things.
RG: When did you actively start paying attention to them?
GS: Years ago, I think. I grew up with, for lack of a better way to say it, psychic tendencies. So I would have dreams that would come true, I would have thoughts that I would say, for no apparent reason, that ended up being true. Once, I blurted out when the phone rang, I blurted out somebody died. I was at my friend's house and it turned out to be the phone call that her aunt died. Just random things. So for me there had always been just sort of I guess opening to something that I didn't really see or understand, and because of that I think I looked for patterns. I guess I was open to the way that the universe might present itself and to signs that something meant something. I had grown up having dreams that were either symbolic, or flat-out outright, saying exactly what was going to happen and then that would happen. So I think I was just open to it for a long, long time.
RG: You're not thinking anything through and you're not cognitively processing signs, you're just getting a feeling, like with the telephone call and knowing somebody had died, right?
RG: Did that transform into you actively looking for signs?
GS: I definitely feel like a lot of this is when you're not looking for things, they come to you, they find you, in the same way that I was kind of joking, but it was true. I don't ever look for pets, they find me, literally, just as I'm driving alongside the freeway I saw one of my other cats when she was a kitten. And I'm kind of putting it out there right now – I’m ready for a kitten! I had a dream last night about another one, so we will see.
RG: Do you know its name yet?
GS: I don’t, but I saw it a couple times, it was like a brown tabby or brown calico or something. I think when you're not thinking, your subconscious has room to come through. I think a lot of writers joke about how ideas come to them while they're in the shower or when they're driving. You take a step back from what you've been trying to figure out, your subconscious has room to come forward and I think that a lot of these things, the premonitions or whatever you might call them, are kind of like that, where you take a step back for a second and then something presents itself.
RG: Your ‘New York Times’ essay talks about you being psychic from an early age and how signs and intuition played a huge role in your life. At age five you foretold an earthquake. There were a handful of things you mentioned, one of them particularly frightening. I’m curious about what that feels like when you're going through your day-to-day life and you have something like that happen. How does that interrelate with the writing that you do?
GS: Good question. I definitely rely on my intuition and I usually have to take a back seat in my own writing to kind of figure out where I'm going, and when I get there I’m often as surprised as a reader would be because I've written things and said to myself, 'I cannot believe she just did that.' I tend to definitely trust that I will get where I need to go, and part of that is because I know that my subconscious just needs time to shape it and to come forward with ideas and then I will, as long as I let myself just go, it will take the shape that it needs to. I think it's just understanding that there is something in the back of my mind, or there is something in my consciousness, wherever it is, whatever that source of inspiration is, or that source of knowledge is, I tend to remind myself that it will find me or I will find it.
RG: Are you able to tap into your intuition at will?
GS: I wish I could. I think to a certain extent, and I think it’s just in the form of writing, just sitting down, if I give myself enough time I will get there and it'll happen. I definitely have to be open to it, I can't be in a bad mood or I’m probably going to be a little blocked.
RG: What do you think being in a bad mood has to do with it?
GS: I think when I’m not in the mood to write, or if something is going on or I’m distracted or not in a good mood, I can usually tell if I reread my stuff. I know it's not a good day to write because I don't feel good about it, and I think there's a blockage that happens when you're feeling negative about something. You're not open to things coming in, you're not open to exploring or trusting yourself. I think a lot of it is confidence and when I'm in a bad mood, or I'm thinking that my writing is just awful, I don't have the confidence to see a thought through or to just go with it. Instead I doubt my choices, and I think that's the big difference. To really see where it's going, you have to be open and self-confident enough to sit back and say, ‘OK, I can do this, let's see where I take myself.’ And that doesn't always happen when you're in a bad mood.
RG: Can you actively work with being psychic? In other words, are you psychic about your characters? Does it extend to them as well?
GS: I don’t ever think that I’m really actively psychic because it tends to be something I have no control over, except for when I sit down and write and I think that that's a little bit different. When I'm writing I feel like it's more of an intuition of where I'm going, or maybe a story that has existed in my subconscious I'm actually trying to access. As far as being psychic, I don't think that I have control over knowing what's going to happen tomorrow or things that come to me in dreams or random thoughts. Nothing that I could go and buy a lottery ticket with. But with writing I think with my characters, again, it's the intuition and I tend to be surprised at how far things can go in directions I hadn't seen. Again it's just kind of sitting back and letting myself go there that makes a difference. I think in a lot of ways these characters have existed, just like the story has existed in my mind, probably in the time that I've been mulling things over. I have dreams about what I'm writing. I mean, these things are in there and I think a lot of it is just kind of finding the character.
Some of it is just as simple as finding the name. There have been times when I was trying to name a character and I just wasn't having a great time with it. I didn't like the name that I had picked and I was just having a hard time writing the character, and then all of a sudden the right name came to me and everything else started falling into place. I don't know if that's psychic or intuition or just creativity or what I think. I think I do tend to foreshadow things before they happen and whether it's that I've set myself up for something and I need to figure it out or whether it's that I knew this was coming all along and I just had to find out myself that it was coming, I don't know. But it's really fascinating to me how often I will discover something within my own story that had been lurking beneath the surface the entire time that even I wasn't consciously aware of.
RG: I was going to ask if you think being psychic is a creative secret weapon?
GS: I think accessing your subconscious is anybody's secret weapon, and I think that it's a great tool for writers. There have been so many times when I have been just exhausted and decided to take a break from writing, just a quick catnap, and it’s in those moments right before you're falling asleep where all of a sudden a thought will come to me and it's the solution or it's something. The same thing happens in the middle of the night, unfortunately, because then I'm wide awake. But it's those moments where you've kind of let go enough where things come in, and I think that is a great tool. If I could master meditation, I think it would be an amazing way to brainstorm or to problem solve.
RG: Do you meditate?
GS: No, I don’t! My Mom always has told me that I should meditate and I never have. Probably because she's told me to meditate! But I've done past life regressions and in a way I feel like it's just serious meditation to be hypnotized, and what I've seen in the stories that have come forward have been fully formed and really intriguing and amazing and that was just all somewhere lurking within my mind. So I do think that, as a writer, it would be really interesting to be able to meditate and to tap into things that have been brewing inside yourself for all these years.
RG: It can't be the only reason that you're not meditating, that your mother told you to – there have to be other reasons!
GS: It's something that I've always kind of thought about doing and I never seem to have time. But I think in a way I've kind of discovered maybe a different route to meditating, which is just, 'OK, time to take a nap,' and then if it's there it's there and it pops up and then all of a sudden I've got my laptop back up and I'm writing again. So in a way it's kind of my version of meditating.
RG: People talk about being in the flow and finding a version of creative transcendence, or being in that theta state that enhances creativity, and it sounds like perhaps that's what's happening to you as you're falling asleep – the answers are coming.
GS: Yeah, I think so. It can happen, too, when I’m outside gardening. All of a sudden my mind, which had been blank as far as I knew, has an idea.
RG: You wrote this really wonderful essay on gardens and your family's history, your father's family in particular, and now you’re gardening as well. How does all of that relate to what we've been talking about?
GS: It was something I grew up around, the nature-nurture. I grew up in a household where my Dad understood the value of a beautiful space. We spent a lot of our time back there and plants were precious and I learned that from him. I also think there's probably some kind of ancestral memory of it, perhaps, that I think is actually on both sides of my family, my mother's as well.
RG: Your mother gardens, too?
GS: My mother gardens, and my grandmother had an amazing garden that I spent a lot of time in in Minnesota and she, my Mom, is from a family of farmers so there's always been a connection to the earth and being into plants and to the land on both sides of my family. That definitely has come through and I know it's definitely been passed along to my son (Max). I can see that already, he's seven years old but he knows how to plant seeds and he loves to tend a garden and he loves it when we have family gardening day and we're all outside working.
RG: You talked about in the essay that the garden was your father's sanctuary. Do you see the garden as one of your holy places as well?
GS: I do! I look at it as an escape and to me there's just such a sense of gratification from being outside and in this beautiful place that you know you've had a hand in creating. I get really happy, it sounds kind of silly, but even seeing how many birds that we have and lizards and all these things that did not come to our garden before. When we bought the house it was pretty much a blank slate with a bunch of orange trees and now it's this place where, I mean, I'm right now sitting on my couch looking through a window and I see two birds in the bougainvillea and they're just kind of watching me. We have so much wildlife out there now and it makes me happy, even though it's a small little place in the world, that we've created this area where these animals go for food and there's a sense of gratification knowing that I had a hand in that.
RG: It sounds perfectly wonderful, especially as I'm looking out my window right now and seeing snow!
GS: It's also a little bit hot. I wish we would get a little bit more cold weather, but I think I’m in the right place for being a gardener. It's always nice in Los Angeles although it's definitely trying during the summer because the dead of summer is almost as bad as the dead of winter here in how the garden looks. But it's a source of escape for me, I think.
RG: I love this visual of the garden and the correlation of lineage, your father, your grandfather, your mother, your grandmother, and linking that past to present. We can kind of circle back – it's a bit of what you do in the book.
GS Yes, yes, that’s true. That's true.
RG: Tell me about the book. How would you describe it, what was its genesis, where did the characters and story idea come from?
GS: The book is twofold, it's set in the present as well as 1948, and it’s about a woman in the present who has been plagued by recurrent nightmares. In the nightmares she’s being buried alive and the book is her exploration of where the nightmares come from. In the course of trying to figure them out, to try and make them stop, she uncovers an entire history in her family that is unknown even to her. She's discovering hints and pieces of it and at the same time we the reader are seeing it play out in the 1940s and so we are actually privy to things that the main character is not privy to, and so our understanding by the end of the book is a little bit different than the main characters in it. It does have to do with past lives, and it has to do with discovering your past and about moving forward and about how things might not be figured out perhaps from this lifetime. But they might be made right in the next, and about how we're drawn to certain people. There are people that have great significance right from the first meeting in our life and how that all plays out and where it takes you.
RG: It's a subtle thriller in its own way, it has a love and a love triangle story, it's this many-layered mystery, past and present, and it's a bit of a page-turner but not in a traditional whodunit sense. It manages to accomplish a lot and keep the story moving so that it is a page-turner.
GS: Thank you, thank you.
RG: What was your experience like in writing this particular book? Your primary character, Abby Walters, is very preoccupied with death and has this recurring nightmare. Are dreams what propelled this book?
GS: In a lot of ways it is. It’s the seed of the dreams. The seed of the book, I will actually just tell you, goes back to when I was 12 years old and like I said I'd always kind of had this weird relationship with psychicness or whatever it was, intuition, and so when I was turning, I think it was for my 13th birthday, my Mom decided to take me and my friends to a psychic for readings, for a birthday present.
RG: Was that your idea or your Mom’s idea?
GS: It was my Mom’s idea. I remember the woman, her name was Sister Ann, and I remember her taking my hand and, oh wait, hold on, I have to go back a little bit. Before this I'd had a dream that same year, I had this dream I was living in Colorado at the time, and I remember in the dream it was winter and I was in a forest, it was a grey sky, white gray sky, and there were leaves on the ground, and I was running with somebody who was my brother but he wasn't my brother, he was basically somebody who I knew to be my brother but who looked completely different. Just like I was not myself but I knew it was me. We're running through the forest and we're running from something and everything in the dream told me that it was during a war and we didn't know where we were going, we were just running and all of a sudden there was a soldier in front of us and he was wearing kind of beige green colors and it was winter so he had a scarf on and a hat. I couldn't see his face, it was black where his eyes would have been. He was completely obscured in shadows as far as his identity went. But we looked up at him and I knew in the dream that he was there to help us. So I opened my eyes and there in my room was the soldier. He's kind of hovering at me where the light fixture was.
RG: You were aware you were still dreaming?
GS: I figured I was still dreaming and so I blinked my eyes, I said, ‘Wake up,’ and he was still there, blinked my eyes a couple more times, he was still there, blinked my eyes again and he was gone. And I didn't really know what to make of it, whether it had been a holdover from the dream, whether I was just seeing things. I just remember thinking, 'OK, that was weird,' and I went about my day. So then flash-forward to later that year when my Mom took us to the psychic. Sister Ann was her name and she took my hands and said, 'You and your brother had been brother and sister before in a past life. I see you running through a forest during a war, and you meet a soldier,' and of course at that point I stopped her and I said, 'I just had this dream. When I woke up he was in my room.' And she said, 'I know, he's coming back into your life.'
RG: Oh my!
GS: I don't know who that is, are we talking I met him 20 years later, are we talking I met him the next day, was it my best friend, was it a husband, was it my son? If you believe in past lives, it could be I haven't seen him in 20 years, 30 years, 300 years. I left with this sense of awestruck wonder at the possibilities of what this could possibly mean if it is true that we have known people in past lives, if it is true that there are people that come back into your life for a reason, or that you have things to work out with and that's why you're with them. So that always stuck in my head. As I got older I started looking into it and I remember when I was in college reading that you could actively ask who you were before you went to bed, say you want to know who you were in a past life, and that you would dream of that name. So I did this for a while, nothing happened, of course, and then one night I had this dream and it was just a name over and over again. I mean just black, and then the name, and the name was Tess MacIlnerny. I've never actually looked it up.
RG: Tess MacIlnerny.
GS: I don't even know how you would spell it because I just heard the name, I didn’t see it. But I woke up thinking, 'OK, I think I was Tess MacIlnerny!' And so that was kind of what gave me the idea for Abby having a dream of a name, and in her dream it's the name Claire Ballantine and it leads her down this entire path. So in a way it was kind of my ruminations on what would happen if I were to look into this and how exciting could it possibly be. I don't think my looking into Tess MacIlnerny would possibly lead me on a story as exciting as Abby's but it definitely opened up this idea of what if, and that was for sure the seed of the story.
RG: You don't know. I would want to find out who Tess MacIlnerny is!
GS: I know! One day I’m going to get bored and Google the hell out of it. But I don't even know where to begin, what century, what continent. It's kind of like, 'I need a little bit more to go on, dreams,' you know?
RG: Maybe you do the same thing before you go to sleep some night and just ask for more information.
GS: Right, more details.
RG: I'm big on asking for information and seeing what happens. You don't have anything to lose, right?
GS: No, you don’t.
RG: And you had said that you had done past life regression?
GS: I think that was after the Tess dream, it was definitely later in college and then in my 20s I did a few of them and I did one not that long ago.
RG: This person, though, didn't show up in any of those past life regressions?
GS: We tried to take me to that life and I just don’t think I got there. I didn't get names of all the people but I had a feeling that I was not in the life of her, so I don’t know. I don't know if it's something that I’m just not meant to look into, or I'll discover later, or maybe the name Tess MacIlnerny actually has nothing to do with me, was stuck in my mind from something else, something I've read. But the regressions themselves were interesting and I really love the idea of hypnosis as a tool to access your subconscious and maybe get into a sort of similar state just as a way to explore creativity.
RG: I'm always interested in any way that anybody is using to kind of figure out creativity and inspiration and using intuition. Have any of your past life regressions ended up in stories or have you actively latched on to one of those people and used them as a character?
GS: One of the first regressions I did kind of twisted and worked its way into ‘You Were Here.’ I can’t say too much without giving a lot of it away but in the regression it was in the '40s and the person that I was, was a music producer in the south somewhere. I remember being that person and standing in front of a beautiful mansion and just thinking longingly that the life I should be living is inside that house, and just feeling this horror that I couldn't have it. That's definitely explored with one of my characters and I pretty much took that scene and worked it into a part of the book, as well as the fact that it's the '40s and we've got the relationship with Eva and William, which you know right off the bat is a little bit similar so I'm not giving anything away there.
RG: When did you start writing?
GS: This is also kind of funny. I've always written little stories for as long as I can remember, and in fact one of the ones that I wrote, I have to find it, it's in this old journal. I think I was about eight or nine and it's a story of a cat and a dog who are fighting and the dog's name is Will and the cat's name is Tess, which is funny because it reminds me of how many things I had named Tess or Tessa throughout my life. I'd be in a car that I insist be named Tessie, I don't know why – who names a car Tessie?! It's strange, the fascination with this name. Anyhow, in the story the cat and the dog are fighting and climbing the ladder to heaven and when they get to the very top God says, 'You need to learn how to love each other, go back and do it again.' Which I thought was pretty interesting! That I wrote that when I was like eight.
RG: There's a children's book in the making!
GS: Right! Children explore reincarnation! A lot of kids are talking about reincarnation even more than the adults so maybe it would be a good children's story.
RG: People say children are closer to it so they tend to remember more. As we get far enough away we just don't remember.
GS: I think we also don’t try and consciously filter it out with logic.
RG: Have you talked to your son about it?
GS: I have. I've been hoping that he'd come up with something wild and crazy but no. He’s like, 'Nope, I don’t remember anything.' But what is funny is that I remember him saying a few times, 'When I chose you.' And I thought that was interesting.
RG: Did he say more about it?
GS: Nope, nope, pretty much, 'I chose you, I love you,' just little things like that. I thought the wording was interesting.
RG: It's also interesting this idea of the collective unconscious and Carl Jung and relating to the synchronicity and things happening and being psychic. Have you done much research to try to further it for you?
GS: No, I really should. I feel like I read more about that when I was in college than I have lately. I believe in that and I think I'm going to end up partaking in it whether I'm thinking about it or not!
RG: Do you have any rituals attached to writing? Is there anything special that you do beforehand trying to, let's say, tap into the universe or asking for guidance? I was going to say meditate but we know you don't do that! Do you pray?
GS: No, my daily ritual, as much as I can do it, is reading and usually I take a bath and read a book I just love, a page turner. Then I get out of the bath and read a little bit of something that has gorgeous language, and usually I read about a paragraph or a page of that because I can't read something with beautiful language without wanting to write. Then I pick up my computer and I get back into it. So really it's about reading something that inspires me.
RG: And you write on a computer, you don't write longhand?
GS: Yeah, I write on a computer.
RG: I know a lot of writers talk about writing longhand. They find it easier to tap into their intuition.
GS: I think if my hand didn't hurt, if I could read my writing, if I could write fast enough, maybe, but I type so much faster that I feel like sometimes I've typed it out before I even understand what I've written. I don't know that I could do that longhand. I don’t think I can write fast enough.
RG: What does the writing process look like for you?
GS: I tend to revisit something that I've written before, usually a backtrack, maybe about five or 10 pages, whatever I had written the day before usually, and I edit that because my favorite thing is just to edit. I love to rewrite what I've written. I love spending time figuring out what word I want versus trying to figure out what I'm trying to say. So I try to rewrite a little bit and then that usually gets me back into the tone and pacing, into my own style of that particular section, and then I keep going forward. It's a lot of revisiting and then it's kind of like a few steps back to figure things out or to make things better and then one step forward. It can be a slow process.
RG: What's the part you tend to focus on the most that gives you the greatest reward?
GS: Well the greatest reward is just figuring out how the pieces of the story fit together. I really love it when things come together, and they always do, knock on wood, and so I feel that’s the part I get the greatest satisfaction out of. It's like, 'Oh my gosh, now I know why this happened,' or, 'This is perfect! I can’t believe that just happened!' I love that. The characters' histories come out as I'm writing so the first draft is usually pretty unformed because I'm kind of discovering them as I write them. Then I have to go back and really make the characters themselves. I revisit a lot of it and fix things at that point.
RG: I know I mentioned to you that your dialogue was particularly impressive. There's this economy of words and yet I feel like I know those characters so intensely just from the dialogue alone. More often than not when I read novels I don't feel that with the characters’ dialogue – it often feels unnecessary. So I thought, were you a screenwriter? I even wondered if you're a poet because it's a different economy of words.
GS: Thank you. Well my aunt is a poet, so I definitely think there's something in the family.
RG: Is she a published poet, and on your Mom or Dad's side?
GS: On my Mom's side, and she is a published poet. She's amazing. Her name is Alixa and the last name, which is my Mom’s maiden name, is Doom.
RG: That's amazing!
GS: Yep, isn’t it?! I should have just used my Mom’s maiden name but nobody would believe me! I have a love of language and of words themselves. When I first started writing stories I completely shied away from dialogue at all costs. I just didn't want it in my stories. I tried to tell every story without anybody saying anything in actual real time, and I did that for a while and then realized I kind of need dialogue. Then I started working for a screenwriter and reading a lot of scripts and that really opened me up to a lot of dialogue. When I started forcing myself to try and write scripts, all of a sudden I was thinking of dialogue in a different way, and that really helped. I find, too, that when I write dialogue, actually when I'm rewriting, when I do my morning rituals like starting five or 10 pages back, I tend to erase half of what almost every character says. I start in the middle of what I was saying and then I twist it a little bit. I pare it down to what I think is what actually needs to be said, or said in a different way, and so there is definitely an economy of language with that. I don't really like talkie books. I’m just not a fan of endless dialogue.
RG: How much do you think of readers when you're writing, or do you not think of them and stay true to whatever story you're trying to tell?
GS: Ultimately I end up staying true to whatever story I'm trying to tell but more and more the readers have come into play. They never used to because I never really thought anybody would ever read what I was writing. Now that I have had a taste of things going out in the world I definitely think of readers. I think of myself as a reader, too – what would I want in this situation, and what would make me turn the page? That's the part I really pay attention to. But I definitely have in the back of my mind worries – are people going to like this or are they going to relate to her character, his character, is there enough resolution? I definitely have those thoughts in my head more than I did 20 years ago when I first started writing. It's definitely more of a consideration, but I am the reader I'm writing for, ultimately.
RG: How is this book different from the first book, ‘Psychic Junkie,’ which you co-wrote?
GS: 'Psychic Junkie' was a memoir, and it was my friend's memoir, so I was limited to the truth and to her story. Although being one of her best friends and living with her during the time that the story took place, I saw things out of my eyes as well so I was able to provide a different point of view and some more observations. But ‘You Were Here’ is of course fiction and so I wasn't limited to anything, I could go wherever I wanted with it. If I wanted to make a character do something stupid I would do it, whereas if I did that with my friend she would yell at me, 'Why are you making me... I didn't do that, don't make me look bad!' So definitely different.
RG: It's interesting how the psychic piece comes up regardless of what you're doing, and as you know this site is about the intersection of creativity and spirituality in whichever way you see them interrelating. I often joke that I see the universe as an art project. Do you give it much thought? And let's talk about your background, where you grew up, and were you raised with any sort of spiritual practice?
GS: I was always raised with the idea of spirituality and I think that both of my parents are very spiritual, although for the longest time I didn't know what religion either one would have been. Back in the day, when I thought that that was what equaled spirituality, I remember my Dad saying he was Christian and I think that was the easy answer for him. He's from Kurdistan in Iraq. So Kurds are Christian, they're Jewish, they're Muslim, they're anything they want to be, basically. It's not tied into religion like it is in most of the Middle East. I remember him always saying he was Christian, and then one day he said to me, 'Well, you know, I don't believe that Jesus was the son of God.' And I was like, 'Oh! That’s kind of big in Christianity, though!' And then it came out that no, he was actually Zoroastrian and his family was Zoroastrian, and I need to do more research on Zoroastrianism. It's fascinating and really interesting to discover that about my family 20 years later.
And the same with my Mom, she was always raised Catholic but by the time she was raising us that had kind of fallen by the wayside. But I think the concept of God and everything was something that was still passed on to us. I remember she used to make us go to church every once in a while just to sing in the choir because for some reason she thought that was an experience every child should have. I can actually tell you that it's not an experience every child should have, especially if they don't actually go to church and they don't know what any of the songs mean, or the words. I actually would escape from church and run next door to the Gamble House, which is in Pasadena, and because of course we couldn't get into the Gamble House – it's gorgeous, it's like a museum – we would just play in the gardens. That was what I actually enjoyed most about those Sundays, wandering around this beautiful garden and then my Mom would pick us up. I mean, she didn’t go to that church, she just dropped us off and then picked us back up.
RG: So you are escaping church and you find the garden, right?!
GS: Yep, and that was kind of my thing, too. I went to Catholic school for as long as I can remember from that point, high school, college, everything, and I remember just telling people that I didn't need to go to church because if I went outside I had all the proof of God that I needed. I still believe that. My concept of God changes all the time. I believe that there's something, and that something is evidence to me with every leaf and every animal. That's really where I find that I am most connected, when I'm outside.
RG: Do you ever think about the concept of God, either big G or little g, as storyteller?
GS: Like is God telling stories through us?
RG: Well, the world is kind of a big story.
GS: Yeah, I think that’s a very good possibility. I mean anything is really possible. I don’t know why we're here, I don't what we're doing! I think everything is pretty unlimited as far as what could be what.
RG: Do you think about it in terms of your stories and inspiration and your imagination? I'm a songwriter, and songwriters often say there’s this big river of songs and sometimes you get the ability to just kind of reach into the river.
GS: I do. I'm a strong believer in accessing things. With 'You Were Here,' I felt like I was chiseling away at this big mound of clay to just get to the story that had been inside it the entire time. Like this shape existed and with every edit I was getting one step closer. I definitely feel that whenever I’m writing, which is why I like the editing process the best because in the beginning you're just rolling a slab of clay down and then you're really finding it later when you're fine tuning it and figuring things out. I feel like that story existed somewhere already, like that river. It was there and I just needed to tap into it and whether that's God or whether it's just something that's the miracle of the subconscious, I don't know. I know that there's a huge percentage of our minds that is subconscious that we can access, but we have no idea what's in there. For all I know I've got novels upon novels just waiting for me to find them and yank them out of my mind!
GS: Yeah, we don’t know. And that’s what's fun to me, that unknown part. What I'm working on right now, one of my characters asked the other character if he believes in God. And he said he doesn’t know. The debate is what makes life worth living. I think that is a big part of it, trying to figure things out. I definitely don't want to know all the answers, at least not right now. It's kind of fun to figure things out as we go along.
RG: It's like a big adventure and you don't necessarily want to know how it ends. I guess maybe your life is over when it ends, I don't know!
GS: Right, yeah, who knows?
RG: You've got a bird's-eye view from the psychic ability you have. I would think it changes how you view the world.
GS: Oh yeah, well definitely the sense of connection is very strong and the sense of fate for me has always been very strong. I'm a big believer in fate and I know some people, you mention the word fate and it's like you've told them they're about to die. I'm not saying you're doomed to anything. It's like I have very strange beliefs, probably, but I believe in a way that we choose our own fate before we're even born because of the lessons that we're meant to learn and the experiences that we’re meant to have, and that we choose who we're going to be with. I guess I've seen it in play in a lot of ways.
RG: Do you want to tell that scary story?
GS: Yeah, so I had been working – this was when I was in college and I was working at a retail store in Pasadena – in this very nice area of Pasadena, and I was about to drive home. I had a sudden craving for a burrito, first of all, and then the second I got in the car everything felt wrong. The left side of the car just felt like it was sinking and it felt like the tires were both flat. So combined with my craving for a burrito, I saw a grocery store that was right before I got to the freeway, and I thought, 'Well this is perfect. I can make sure that my tires are OK, check out what's going on with my car, and get a burrito. And that way I'll be safe getting on the freeway.' So I pulled over into the grocery store and I got out of the car. I actually pulled under these bright lights in the grocery store parking lot specifically so I could check the tires. Everything was fine, there was nothing wrong with the car. So I was a little surprised and just thought, 'OK, go get the burrito,' and walk straight inside the grocery store when I heard like three loud claps. Sounded like a giant was clapping his hands. And it took me a second to realize it was not a giant, it was in fact gunshot and, living in Los Angeles like I did, I just continued my grocery shopping, made some jokes with the cashier, and a little while later walked outside and saw police tape surrounding my car. Only my car, mind you! There was a bullet hole right through the driver's side window, right in front of where the headrest was, that went out the other side of the other window, and there was another bullet hole in the passenger window that went out the other passenger window.
So when I talked to the police they told me, because I had literally parked my car and walked inside and was at the bread aisle, they told me that I had missed the shots by under a minute. It was a crazy night where I realized I just had the most expensive burrito known to man, and it made me realize that I had been given this premonition, or the feeling that something was wrong, and I was taking care of it when I absolutely instead put myself exactly in the path where that thing would happen. So it was a little disconcerting but at the same time it made me feel better in a way because I had a feeling it was going to happen, and it was going to happen even if I took part in creating it on a subconscious level. I still don't exactly know why it needed to happen. I'm sure that it did something. I mean it did a lot, it helped me feel like wherever I went I was on the right path for one thing. But it was an experience that definitely stuck with me because that feeling of fate was really really pervasive that night.
RG: One thought I had is that if your car wasn't in the spot it was in, maybe somebody else, or somebody else's car, might have been in that spot and they might have gotten killed.
GS: You are exactly right! I can't believe I've never thought of that! But it's exactly right. If I didn’t park there maybe somebody else would have parked there and they would have checked their lipstick before getting out. Or something like that. There are so many patterns and amazing things like that, that we just don't know because we don't see the conclusion of the story, and we don't see somebody else's story, and how what we did fit into their day and how our actions played out in somebody else's life. We're seeing such a small part of what could be miracles every single day and we don't know that they're miracles because we're not seeing it play out, and we're not understanding that we might have just saved a life because we parked in one particular parking spot. I think especially when you're writing from different points of view you're seeing how everything affects the other character, or generations, and you're seeing how everything kind of comes into play. A writer I really love wrote about my book that it was a puzzle box of a book, which I just love. I love that because it's how I view life, and I think that it's really interesting to think about the way that everything fits together and when you really look for it, you see those pieces. And I love that.
RG: Do you think about angels? Do you think about intervention or spirit guides that perhaps might be there for you, or involved with you, protecting you, protecting others?
GS: When I was younger we used to play the Ouija board all the time and I remember being told that I should ask for my spirit guide right away. So I did and her name was Isha. I remember when I went to that same psychic that my mom took me to when I was 13, she told me that I had a spirit guide named Isha, which was a little strange, again! That woman was amazing, I wish I could find her. So Isha was a spirit guide she mentioned, and also I think she said something about Saint Teresa. I don't know who else she mentioned, she mentioned a few people. I remember for a long time when I'd get worried about something I would pray to them, and I do remember, too, that I would always feel like a chill on my left shoulder when I was worried or scared about something. When I went to the psychic, she told me that she saw them standing on my left side by my left shoulder. Maybe I was feeling their calming touch or like a reminder that everything's OK. I hadn't really thought about them much over the last couple decades but that was definitely something that I thought of when I was younger.
RG: Here I am to remind you! Do you work with any talismans, or anything along these lines? I saw on Instagram that the writer Sue Monk Kidd has had a painting of the Black Madonna over her desk for 15 years or something.
GS: Oh wow.
RG: I wondered if you have anything?
GS: No. At one point I got stones that had certain meanings and representations on my desk, but other than that, no, it’s just me and my computer wherever I end up.
RG: Do you have an artistic or spiritual hero or someone who speaks to you in a meaningful way? Again, the guides or whomever?
GS: No. I should get one, though, that sounds fun!
RG: Every writer I know reads incredibly widely, and you talked about loving to read every day. What are three of your favorite books, either creative, spiritual, or otherwise, that you would always want with you?
GS: Ah, let me see. I have one bookshelf that I always have next to me in case I'm lacking in inspiration and have to reach out. One of them is 'Fates and Furies,' by Lauren Groff, which I absolutely love. I love Lauren Groff, I love all of her books. Another one is James Salter's collection of short stories called 'Last Night,' and I love love love him. Let's see, what's another one, oh I love 'All the Light We Cannot See,' which of course won the Pulitzer so I'm not the only one who loved that! Those are three that I have just sitting next to my desk. I have them within reach at all times. If I'm not feeling inspired by language I just grab one of them and I'm inspired within a page.
RG: Is there any particular book you're in love with right now?
GS: I'm actually re-reading 'The English Patient,' which I'm in love with. I hadn't read it in so long and I picked it up again a couple months ago and that's the book I'm reading right before I start writing. Usually I can only get through a page or two without being like, 'All right, time to start writing!' It's just beautiful.
RG: Do you read books on creativity or inspirational material?
GS: No, I haven't. I probably should. I've had a lot of friends who really sink themselves into books like that and I just never have. To me, I find a good fiction book or poetry or something, and I'm actually just realizing I should be reading more poetry since I just love language. Probably something I should look into as a career, too. It might be faster than writing a novel.
RG: It's fascinating to me how everybody follows a different path and makes different choices, for their personal life and then for their creative life as well.
GS: Yeah, definitely. I for sure beat to my own drum, or march to my own beat, or however the saying goes. That's me.
RG: March to your own drummer, it's Thoreau, right?
GS: Probably! See again, it's who knows?! I read a lot and then I forget a lot.
RG: Can you give me a snapshot of what you're working on now? I'm particularly curious what story you want to tell next.
GS: Well it's funny, I don't want to say too much because I don't want to jinx it. I think the next thing I do involves the feeling of fate. It's not the predominant story but it's in there.
RG: Is this the one you've already started?
GS: Yes. I think I'm only on page 54 or something. I've got a ways to go! We'll see where it goes. I'm kind of curious myself.
RG: I was going to say, you don't even know where it's going yet, I imagine.
GS: I don't, I don't. And that's the hardest thing, just sitting back. I have an outline. I don't necessarily know that it's going to go where the outline is telling me it's going. I just kind of sit back and see what happens, and there's a lot of stuff that's not fleshed out just yet that is in the outline. Little notes saying, 'Figure this out.' There's still a lot to figure out even with the outline that I have and that's where I just have to sit back and know that I'll get there.
RG: It's all about trust, isn't it?
GS: It is. It is. It's the hardest part about it.
RG: I want to circle back to the garden one more time. I'm wondering if you have a favorite flower, and if it's the same as your Dad's.
GS: I think roses are my favorite. I have probably about 40 rose bushes. Some of them are very small but here in Los Angeles we don't get cold enough for them to lose all their leaves so they don't go dormant unless we help them along. Every January, the first weekend in January, I have to go through every single rose bush and prune them and strip every single leaf and then clear out all the leaves and give them certain fertilizers and stuff. It is such a horrifying, horrible experience and I yell at them, and I'm arguing with them, and they're grabbing me and they're poking me and I'm telling them it's for their own good, why don't they understand, and they don't understand, they're just snagging me and it's like they're children, is what it feels like, and I love them. They're like this flower that you have to put so much painful work into, and I mean other places you don't have to put in the same work but here you do. It's worth it, though. I get really excited about all my darn roses and I take pictures of them and I Instagram them probably more than I do Max! I love my roses.
RG: That is such a wonderful visual of you pruning these rose bushes – it has to show up in a book or a screenplay or a poem.
GS: I know! I'm sure it will. The character I'm working on right now is going to have a garden, and gardens do play a part in this, so I have a feeling it probably will. There have been times last year – I'm sure I looked ridiculous – but I figured out one of the best ways to prune roses, because I have arches where the roses grow over. I would literally get caught in the roses, sweaters caught, and my hair caught, everything, like not able to get myself out, like having to call for help kind of caught.
RG: Oh my!
GS: Last year I figured out the best way to prune those roses where they arch, the climbers, is to wear a shower cap. So I look ridiculous when I prune my roses. You do what you've got to do! Out there with a clipper and a shower cap!
RG: I'm beginning to think maybe the books are screenplays transposed into novel form.
GS: That might be it! I'm sure I'll end up being back in screenplay land before you know it!
This conversation has been edited and condensed.