The debut novel by Ann Arbor author and therapist Jan Leland follows characters processing emotions in the early days of the pandemic
We all collectively endured the pandemic, but we each had an individual experience of it.
The circumstances in which Leland’s characters’ find themselves all differ, but they converge at the same time—when COVID-19 emerges—and in the same place: the Clearview Inn on Orchard Lake in Keego Harbor, Michigan. Through these characters, Leland portrays the stress and anguish—as well as the triumphs and coping mechanisms—of the early days of the pandemic.
One of these characters, Ashley Cooper who is known as Ash, works at The Book Shelf in town. The coronavirus affects her early on when her boss and close friend, Marla Phillips, sickens and passes away. As Leland is attentive to character development, we learn about Ash in detail:
Pretty and petite with shiny shoulder length curly brown hair and brown eyes, high cheekbones and dimples, Ashley was smart and curious. Although Marla felt Ashley needed life experience, she perceived an inner strength to Ashley. It did not take much for Marla to convince Ashley to take the position of Store Manager at The Book Shelf.
The job offered, in Ashley’s eyes at least, the opportunity to work and live in a small town where people were friendly and easy-going and where Ashley felt important and sophisticated in providing literary knowledge and expertise.
This opportunity for Ash allows her to not only engage with books but also meet many others with whom she becomes close.
The novel accurately tracks the spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout the world and into Michigan as it relates to the characters. When John and Annette Marlin welcome Ash and other acquaintances to the Clearview Inn to shelter in place together, they all become important parts of each other’s lives. Ash is grieving and finds her resilience through her friends’ encouragement. The maintenance person, Ben, falls ill, recovers in isolation at the inn, and stays on after moving his mother, Lena, to the inn, too. Vivi, who is Ash’s former landlord, joins them when her jet-setting retirement plans are foiled by lockdowns. Dr. Brandon Nash has symptoms of long COVID but contributes his health expertise to the temporary community that develops at the inn. Grace, a latecomer to the group, has little to pay in rent but pitches in with her music and caretaking skills.
This close-knit group supports each other regardless of what the characters encounter. When Vivi is injured at a protest, everyone takes on aspects of her care, from Grace who runs her physical therapy exercises to John who cooks excellent meals. Even though Vivi becomes cantankerous, her friends do what they can to help and connect her with a therapist. Leland’s experience as a mental health therapist shows in the description of Vivi’s depression: “… you feel no pleasure in anything. You stay in bed with no appetite. You have a negative attitude toward everything and everyone, including your so-called ‘sweet’ significant other. You lack motivation to get well. […] The evidence would suggest that you are depressed.” With the help of friends, Vivi rallies and finds joy again.
As the pandemic drags on, the characters are relieved when vaccines become available in early 2021 and feel anxious anticipation for life to return to some semblance of normal. The turn of the year to 2021 brings mixed emotions:
The ball dropped in an unprecedentedly quiet New York Times Square. It was a complicated night. Some of them missed the family or friends with whom they usually would have celebrated. Some of them were dreading the potential for coming political unrest. Some felt a malaise related to a potential COVID-19 daily death count in excess of 4,000 Americans being expected January-February. […] They all longed for the After-Times.
Many of us can recall the limbo of 2020-2021.
Leland is a part-time mental health outpatient therapist for an Ann Arbor-based neuropsychology clinic. She will read at Schuler Books in Ann Arbor on Thursday, September 28, at 6:30 pm. Leland will also speak about “Writing As a Means of Coping With Stress” at the Ann Arbor District Library’s Westgate branch on Friday, November 10, at 6:30 pm. I caught up with her for an interview before these events.
Q: What brought you to become an author and therapist in Ann Arbor?
A: I have been a mental health therapist for over 40 years. I moved to Ann Arbor to take a clinical director position at a multi-site mental health clinic in 2003. Since then, I have returned to clinical work, and specialize in depression, anxiety, and trauma treatment, part-time, at a neuropsychology clinic in Ann Arbor. Although I have always been a writer, in that I have written feature stories as a journalist and published journal articles and a chapter in a psychiatric textbook in my field, I have not done anything before like a novel. Writing After the Before-Times was precipitated by having uninterrupted time during the pandemic, a need to distract myself from the horror of the pandemic in the news and in the lives of my patients, and as a means of addressing my own isolation during the pandemic.
Q: How does being an author intersect with your work as a therapist? Do the two roles inform each other, and if so, in what ways?
A: I definitely used my knowledge of psychology, mental health symptoms, and therapy techniques in the book. One reviewer told me that the feelings of the character on page 144 were so impactful to her in her life, that she took the book into her next therapy session and spent the hour using that page to open up to her therapist. So gratifying!
Q: In your response to the previous question, you mentioned the dialogue that some characters had about depression. Other parts of the book examine guilt, anger, and trauma, too. On guilt, Ben wisely says to Ash, “You made the best decisions you could at the time with what you knew at the time. Not fair to judge yourself based on what you know now.” Was it gratifying to see the characters work through their pain, too? How so?
A: In my over 35 years doing treatment, I would have to say that emotional pain, anger, and guilt are frequently the issues which universally underly depression and trauma. I had to make these characters survivors of their pain and trauma, because it is so gratifying, and inspirational, when people find a way to persevere.
Q: When a new character appears, they receive a chapter dedicated to their backstory. What inspired these characters?
A: I know this is going to sound strange, but I started with Ashley running from the hospital, which lead to Marla, which lead to the inn owners, etc. There was no inspiration from real life; the characters just came to me, and I created the backstory I needed to further the storyline or illustrate a theme. The only exception is the character of Grace. My granddaughter asked me to put her name in my book, so I did. My granddaughter is strong in facing adversity like the Grace in the story, but my Grace is not like the Grace in my book in any other ways—never homeless or abused.
Q: The description of the book says that it is “carefully researched.” How did you go about researching for this novel?
A: As a former journalist, I was following the daily events of the pandemic in the news from March 2020 to March 2021. It was so sad and frightening, but I felt strongly that I wanted to be a witness to history. To cope, I took notes and placed the daily developments into my narrative. If it was New Year's in my life, I wrote about New Year's that day in the novel for the characters. It gave me some distance to have my characters experiencing the events, it gave me a distraction to my lack of family contact, and I could also be in control of some events in my book when I felt I was not in control of my life right then, locked down as I was. Also, in the afterward, I researched and documented the pandemic developments as they unfolded, between March 2020 to March 2021.
Q: After the Before-Times is based in southeastern Michigan and refers to real places. The plot is also closely tied to the seasons, such as when the residents of the Clearview Inn pick Honeycrisp apples in the fall. How did setting the book in the state where you live help with developing the environment and plot?
A: Well, I always heard that writers should write about what they know. I have lived in Michigan and traveled the state with my family for over 60 years. It is a beautiful state with almost every natural wonder you can imagine. It lends itself to descriptive writing about snow and ice, life on a lake, the changing season, etc. The plot is tied so closely to the seasons because, like I mentioned, I wrote the novel in "real time"—if it was snowing, I wrote about snow. If it was Thanksgiving, I wrote about Thanksgiving. This structure gave me something new to write about every day, and I looked forward to the writing that day, in my lockdown away from all real people, during the first year of the pandemic!
Q: What are your takeaways from writing a novel for the first time?
A: I never realized before I wrote a novel that it is a very personal and intimate thing to give a piece of oneself to strangers. It is a little scary! The biggest takeaway is that now I can call myself an author or a novelist. I have pride in having done something which took so much time and was so much work and that I have seen it through to completion. Also, that I turned 11 months of isolation into an opportunity!
Q: You will be speaking on the topic of “Writing As a Means of Coping With Stress” at AADL on November 10, and I am wondering if you could give us a sneak preview. How was writing this novel a way to manage stress for you?
A: For me, writing this novel every day helped me distance myself psychologically from all the stress, death, and sadness in the early months of the pandemic. Unlike in real life, I could control who lived and who died and who stayed well or got sick in my book.
Q: What is on your stack of books to read?
A: I am currently reading a brilliant nonfiction book, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I don’t have a “stack” right now, as I am so busy with events around the release of my novel.
Q: With your first novel published, what is on the horizon next for your writing?
A: Well, as it turns out I am about 50% done writing a sequel to After the Before-Times, called After News of Death. There are some new and old characters. It is going slowly because I now have a more active life, thank goodness!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Jan Leland reads from "After the Before-Times" at Schuler Books in Westgate Shopping Center, Ann Arbor, on Thursday, September 28, at 6:30 pm. She will speak about “Writing As a Means of Coping With Stress” at the Ann Arbor District Library’s Westgate branch on Friday, November 10, at 6:30 pm.