The work of William Shakespeare has shaped Professor John Wilson’s life, from his adolescent infatuation with The Merchant of Venice and his memorization of Romeo and Juliet as a college freshman to his late-career attempt to defend Humanism. But now his brilliant mind has been diminished by Alzheimer’s, and his beloved bee-keeping wife—the right wife, after three failed marriages—is unable to keep him at home any longer.
As John finds his physical world reduced to an old leather armchair in a new green room, his long-estranged daughter, Miranda, suddenly reappears. While father and daughter replay the dreadful events that drove them apart, John continues to try to understand the world using the only tools that still hover within his reach—his knowledge of and love for Shakespeare’s plays—and Miranda wonders if it is possible to forge a new relationship with a father whose memory is dissolving.
As a powerful and poetic look at what the inner life of an intelligent man suffering from Alzheimer’s might be like, Still Time brims with unexpected moments of happiness, humor, and hope.
As a chronicle of an aging Shakespearean scholar’s final encounters with Shakespeare’s plays, Still Time explores some of humanity’s most enduring questions about forgiveness, reconciliation, and our capacity for growth and change.
As the story of an imperfect father and a wounded daughter’s efforts to achieve an authentic connection despite his diminishing mental capacity and the misunderstanding that drove them apart, Still Time celebrates reunion, redemption, and the gift of second chances.
Readers who know Shakespeare well will find much to discover, delight in, and think about as this story weaves the characters, plots, and language of the plays into the fabric of John’s thoughts and experience, while readers whose knowledge of Shakespeare is limited or nonexistent will be moved and fascinated by how this story makes John, Miranda—and Shakespeare’s plays—come alive.
A man extols the virtues of Shakespeare to uplift humanity, yet he is estranged from his three ex-wives and daughter. John Hubbard Wilson, PhD, should not be a likable character, but his compelling inner monologue as he battles dementia does elicit sympathy. He willingly enters a nursing home to please his stressed, beloved fourth wife, Sally, but later does not remember what he is doing in, as he calls it, his cell. As he watches the green world out his window, he mentally continues his scholarship on Shakespeare’s last plays, the romances, with fantastical happy endings where everything is forgiven and forgotten. He has never quite forgiven his daughter, Miranda, for a rebellious teenage indiscretion, although he can no longer remember the details. Sally convinces Miranda to try for reconciliation before it’s too late. As his disease progresses, and some of the walls of the ivory tower he has built begin to crumble, his memory comes in bits and snatches of tender storytelling with the child Miranda. The subject will engender comparison with Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (2007), but this book is for anyone who appreciates a beautifully written, character-driven story or anyone who has ever enjoyed Shakespeare. Heartbreaking in the best possible way.
An absolutely riveting read from beginning to end, “Still Time” clearly documents author Jean Hegland as a superb novelist whose deftly crafted characters and thoroughly absorbing story make this one of those all to rare novels that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished and set back upon the shelf. Still Time is very highly recommended for both community and academic library Literary Fiction collections. For personal reading lists it should be noted that “Still Time” is also available in a Kindle edition.
—Midwest Book Review
Jean Hegland, the author of several books including Into the Forest, a personal favorite of mine, has put forth a new novel expected out in just a few days. I jumped at the opportunity for an advance look at Still Time, a contemporary novel of an academic struggling through Alzheimer’s Disease and his deteriorating memories of the Shakespeare he loves so much.
Still Time begins as John Wilson’s fourth wife has no choice but to put him in a nursing home. She’s exhausted and it has come to the point where she can’t even leave him at home by himself. Confronting him with tears in her eyes, he is moved by her visible pain but doesn’t truly comprehend the problem. Knowing that she’s upset he seeks to comfort her the only way he knows how, with Shakespearean prose — mixed and matched to fit the occasion.
John has a daughter, Miranda, from his second wife and it’s been ten years since they last saw each other. When she was seventeen, she had accompanied John and his third wife to London where John was ready to give the speech of his life, presenting his views on Shakespeare to his academic contemporaries. Miranda vanished the night before which left John as a sleep-deprived, emotionally distraught vessel of a man, and he blew his speech. When she turned up, he promptly sent her home and the rift between them grew wider with time.
In the nursing home, John has a difficult time as his memories cascade from one point in time to another. He believes he has important work to tend to and he can’t understand how to get home. He reflects on his life, his four wives, the disappointing turn of events with his daughter and his ruined speech in London, and most of all Shakespeare and how he came to be obsessed with the man and his work.
His daughter Miranda comes to visit, seeing her father for the first time in many years. Then she comes back several more times. It is as frustrating for John as it is for Miranda. He can’t remember her and when he does, he spouts angry passages from Shakespeare at her. Miranda never grew to love Shakespeare the way he did, and she doesn’t understand. Still, she has matured from her teen years and so, she tries to mend the rift between them.
Just as Into the Forest, Jean Hegland haunts yet again in Still Time. The depiction of an incredibly intelligent man struggling with the loss of his memories and his inability to understand the world around him is a fate that many will indeed find haunting because of its terrifying possibility — this could be me someday. His desire to leave the facility, the desire for his work, the need for someone to help him — he can’t be satiated.
While John reminisces about everything from childhood to his last wife, he brings in thoughts and passages from Shakespeare, incorporating them into his emotions to describe certain events. From the way he disappointed his father to the way he let his daughter down. Toward the end, memorized passages trigger feelings that he can’t understand, yet it helps him.
Still Time is a highly evocative read, managing to strike with pinpoint accuracy at several raw emotions. It’s also a wonderfully intelligent read and Jean deftly weaves in characters and prose from Shakespeare’s greatest, expertly creating connections between these references and John’s deteriorating thoughts. It gives the reader the chance to revisit brief sections of Shakespeare and experience them through the mind of a lifelong Shakespearean academic.
—Rebecca Skane, Portsmouth Review
As we were beginning our time with King Lear last month (and I was mentioning that the play seemed to be playing like a confluence of a number of thoughts and emotions in my life currently: the loss of my father, the health problems my wife’s mother was going through, and the fear/reality that Alzheimer’s runs in my wife’s family), it was brought to my attention that there was recent novel that dealt with those same themes.
And thus, I found Still Time by Jean Hegland in my hands and on my Kindle.
The Amazon page for the 2015 book has a blurb by David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and Shakespeare’s Words:
Anyone who knows only fragments of Shakespeare will be fascinated and deeply moved by this insightful story of a Shakespeare scholar experiencing dementia. Fellow Shakespeareans will delight in the way the myriad allusions to the plays are intertwined with beautifully crafted elegiac descriptions of the old man’s life in a home and his dissolving family memories. Still Time is a novel Shakespeare would be proud of.
If you’ve followed this blog, you know in what high regard I hold Crystal (and his son Ben)… but, those are some bold words. Could the book live up to them?
The book concerns John Wilson, a Shakespeare scholar and professor, as he descends into Alzheimer’s. The book is told from two different vantage points, John’s and that of his estranged daughter Miranda (Tempest alert!). The latter tells a rather straightforward narrative, but John’s—since it is from the mind of one who is succumbing to dementia—is a more tangled yarn. That yarn—that story—is spun from many different yarns, different varieties of threads or styles; and as his old ways of remembering and communicating slip from him, more of the of diction and syntax pulls from what he’s life has revolved around: Shakespeare. Stylistically, the novel is wonderfully crafted.
Thematically, the book speaks to a number of my fears, losing my own personal memories only to metaphorically drown in what’s left (the scholarly memories of Shakespeare), losing my wife to a similar fate, just losing her, me or either of our two sons.
Because it speaks so specifically to those fears, maybe that’s why I was so affected by it. Or perhaps that’s merely the reason I gave the book the chance to work its magic on me. But magical it is. And beautiful.
I’m not sure if it’s heartbreakingly beautiful or beautifully heartbreaking.
Regardless, by the time I was done, I felt like the book’s protagonist as he finishes a late-life re-reading of King Lear:
Nothing but the stillness of his green room and the I am of his still-beating heart. Nothing but the small stir of his next breath and the monotonous leaking of his scalding tears—such a meager trickle compared to that torrential waste and loss and woe.
Nothing. As from Lear. That “I am of his still-beating heart” … it’s the iamb of the rhythm of the language of the heart, blank verse. And those tears I felt on my own cheeks.
While I’m sure that those with a love of Shakespeare or a fear of dementia will be particularly caught by the story and its telling (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably are in one of those two groups), I believe that a general audience will be touched by this novel as well.
I recommend it very highly.
—Bill Walthall, The Bill Shakespeare Project
Characterized by its stillness amidst profound pain, Still Time is a poignant story about loss. Within brokenness we find a counterintuitive sense of unity. This is a novel built around seemingly disparate stories yet united together in powerful ways as Hegland conveys to us, through the eyes of John, the distressing, isolating, and confusing experience of dementia. Like John, we struggle to pin together the pieces of the narrative until the peroration which sees a union as powerful as that we wish for, for Lear and Cordelia, and the union we are offered at the close of The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and even Pericles. Like the late plays, a powerful sea-change also occurs in this novel.
John’s daughter, Miranda is a character who ultimately shows herself to be at least as powerful in ensuring unity as her Shakespearean character namesake. (Even if the odds are rarely stacked in her favor). But you might be wondering why this novel is appearing on a Shakespeare site at all. That’s the really clever part of the novel. This consideration of the human capacity to remember is woven into the story of John Wilson, a retired Shakespeare scholar.
Falling in love with Romeo and Juliet as a student, John began to memorize lines and whole plays by Shakespeare. Shakespeare dominated his working life, as he devoted himself to the study and exposition of Shakespeare’s plays to students and fellow scholars alike. But as his memory fades, Shakespeare remains: first the memories of scholarly criticism, later the stories, and finally merely “words, words, words.” Shakespeare’s words speak when John cannot:
He marvels yet again how perfectly the lines William Shakespeare wrote four centuries earlier […] fit what John is feeling now, as a man of seventy, half a world and four centuries distant…
We see this early on in the novel as John tries to fathom his feelings, his confusion and his concern for his loved ones. In this novel there are many layers of story as past and present merge and the layering of memories at one grows and disintegrates. Shakespeare remains ever present.
Words from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are peppered throughout the novel. While Shakespeare’s words have been cut and pasted in, this is in sharp juxtaposition to the increasing difficulty John finds in pasting together the strands of his life. His memory cannot ultimately be pasted back together; nevertheless it is the glue of love and family refracted through Shakespeare’s words that brings about some peace and relief.
The quiet stillness and peace of Still Time is in contrast to the increasing fragmentation which the narrative mimetically reminds us of. But there is a bigger contrast: while you might expect a still, calm, and peaceful novel to be a slow—dare I say it, boring—read, the reverse is true of this book. I found myself gripped to John’s story. The peace of the narrative masks the pain below, and the stillness is constantly rocked by the crumbling consciousness of John Wilson.
This is a novel which will resonate for Shakespeare enthusiasts, academics, and those with only a school knowledge of Shakespeare for above all it is a story of a journey of memory—of what remains when all is lost. Read it and experience the power of words once more, as love and Shakespeare bind audience and characters together in perfect harmony. Like Christmas films which end with family reconciliation, Still Time is a heart-warming novel and yet the slippage in memory and words gives the tale of John all the more power amidst the poignancy.
Miranda urges her father, as a child not to remember, as that suggests forgetfulness but to “member” and, as we follow John’s journey we member the power of words and memory to damage and destroy, but also to renew and reconcile when all is seemingly lost. By articulating the story of John Wilson, Hegland offers us a vivid depiction of the experience of dementia. She also closely captures the story of the academic journey from student to professor, as we see the student become the master, and ultimately a reversal to student fascination with mere words at the novel’s close. The limitations of academic study are shown by the re-visioning of John’s astute-though-confused eyes as he reforms and refashions Shakespeare’s words again as if for the first time. Though memory shatters, Shakespeare’s words still remain.
Like Shakespeare’s sonnets where time is transcended, so too in Still Time are the memories of John memorialized. And the chocked cry of each reader as Still Time ends will be “Goodbye, Goodbye,” as John wordlessly urges us to “’member me.”
—Sarah Waters, The Shakespeare Standard
A Novel About Shakespeare, Memory and So Much More
What a lovely surprise I found reading Still Time—an elegant, sharply intelligent but emotionally intuitive novel that happens to have as its protagonist a retired Shakespearean scholar spiraling into Alzheimer’s.
Shakespeare? Alzheimer’s? I admit I opened the book with dread. I am not a fan of issues-centered novels, including issues that affect me, in other words including Alzheimer’s. I dislike books that glamorize victims. I cringe at them when they’re pathetic and when they’re noble, perky, and uplifting. I avoid educational books; even the Alzheimer’s bible The 36-Hour Day left me cold. And I hate preachy books period, whether fiction or non-fiction, whether or not I agree with the basic message, political, spiritual, or nutritional for that matter.
And while I have more than a passing knowledge of Shakespeare, I can’t say that a novel promising to delve into literary criticism of his plays would exactly whet my reading appetite.
But Hegland held my interest in the Bard all the way through—well, there was a bit of skimming in some of the longer winded bits on Shakespeare.
As for the Alzheimer’s bit, Hegland is the first author I’ve read who makes Alzheimer’s both a central element in the novel and a metaphor for larger questions the novel raises about the human condition.
As the novel opens John Wilson is moving into a nursing facility . His beloved fourth wife Sally, who supports him, feels she has no choice. She cannot manage her work as a bee keeper and care for him any longer at home.
While Hegland takes us inside John’s interior world, particularly his rumination and meditations on language, time, and memory in relationship to his enduring passion for Shakespeare—he memorized his first play, Romeo and Juliet, when he was 19—she does not pretend to explain Alzheimer’s. We see the shrinkage of his world, the graying and narrowing, but John is a very particular combination of mind and heart, not a generic representative. Not too many folks with Alzheimer’s express themselves most clearly in Shakespearian verse. Not too many husbands on the eve of being institutionalized joke lovingly to their beekeeping wife, “Beauty is in the eye of the bee holder.”
At Sally’s prompting John receives a visit from his only daughter Miranda (named for Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest). The two have been estranged for ten years, ever since Miranda, then fifteen, accompanied John and his third wife to a literary conference in London. During the trip an incident occurred that scarred father and daughter in ways neither has been unable to share; each has therefore continued to misinterpret the other’s reaction.
So narratives lines from the present and the past twist together. John lives more and more deeply inside his mind, which remains alive to the language and the emotional resonance of Shakespeare’s plays even as he loses track of the concrete world around him. Meanwhile he and Miranda follow the confusing maze of their relationship to its center.
Miranda is not an academic scholar like John, but like him she is a lover for stories. And her talent and passion for video game art offer a provocative consideration of the creative experience and the evolution of creative forms.
At one point Miranda asks John which play is his favorite. Love’s Labors Won, he tells her, and of course she thinks he means Love’s Labor’s Lost, but he explains, quite lucidly, that Love’s Labor’s Won was actually registered but no copies have been found. Miranda understandably asks if the lost book is his favorite, “Because love won?”
“‘Because,’ he says impatiently, ‘it could be anything. It’s what we don’t…have, what we can only imagine. The possibilities.’”
Explore the possibilities of Still Time for yourself. I’d love to hear if you found it as profound as much as I did.
John Wilson, a Shakespeare scholar, suffers from dementia and is now in a residential care facility. A visit from her stranded daughter, Miranda (who is an online gamer), proves very difficult to him. His quest to make sense of it all through the Bard, and the plays he has memorized over time, seem an impossible feat. And yet… the words are there to help him along.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are a serious issue in the US. Some of the facts provided by the Alzheimer’s Association show that 1 in 3 seniors die or suffer from different types of dementia. Sometimes the family can cope, and many other times a care facility seems the only possible way to handle things.
As you can imagine, the scenes in the residential home are tough. John doesn’t know where he is half of the time, and the only thing he wants to do is leave, join his fourth wife and get down to work. Time confuses him, and he is often literally reliving the past, remembering bits and pieces. Mostly, he remembers Shakespearean characters and plots: A Winter’s Tale, A Midsummer Night’s dream, King Henry IV… in doing so, he compares them with his own life.
For me, the best bits are all about the daughter. Miranda and his father had a serious row ten years earlier in London, and they have hardly spoken ever since. She is visiting him now and wants to tell him about her life: she works in a coffee shop, she never went to college, not yet, and she has just been accepted in ArchTech to learn how to design online games.
The fascination she feels playing online, and some of the criticism Hegland gives to female characters throughout those games (“almost naked Barbie dolls, clad in chain mail” when they could be so much more) are fascinating. Also fascinating is the passionate way she feels about game playing: how entering a new world can change the gamer, very much like Shakespeare plays can change a viewer.
The novel is hard to follow at times, because the ramblings of an elderly father afflicted with dementia are like that: frustrating, rambling, his chain of thoughts derivative at best. However, the insight he gives on the Bard are pretty good, his conception of him, as a miracle that can still change lives, something you can agree on. The effort the daughter puts in strengthening their bond one more time before he loses all grip on reality feel very real. If you have a relative with Alzheimer’s, or love Shakespeare, or are a bit curious about how online gaming relates to it all, this novel is definitely for you.
Still Time isn’t a derivative version of any Shakespeare play, but it contains multitudes. The main character is a retired Shakespeare scholar who has recently been admitted to a nursing home. He’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. He struggles to remember his daughter, and he keeps insisting that he’s meant to be heading home before nightfall. He recalls bits of his career from time to time—and bits of Shakespeare. Those seem to stick deeper than some other elements, but even those are occasionally hard to grasp for him.
As you can imagine, that’s a tough story to tell. What impressed me most was the deep and convincing way in which the story is told. This isn’t a tearjerker—though it’s likely to make you cry. This isn’t a simple narrative—though it’s clear. This isn’t a story about recovery from loss—though it provides thoughts on that subject.
I also felt like I might be reading my future in the novel. That makes it harder, of course, but it also makes it genuine.
I often talk to my students about writing with depth and significance. This complicated novel provides just that—without providing an easy moral at the end.
Bardfilm, The Shakespeare and Film Microblog
“The wonderful Jean Hegland returns with a moving, beautiful story about what persists and what doesn’t, about what can be repaired and what can’t. This is a tale focused and personal, but also large and philosophical; and all of it infused with and guided by the great Shakespeare. Men are men; the best sometimes forget.”
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
“Anyone who knows only fragments of Shakespeare will be fascinated and deeply moved by this insightful story of a Shakespeare scholar experiencing dementia. Fellow Shakespeareans will delight in the way the myriad allusions to the plays are intertwined with beautifully crafted elegiac descriptions of the old man’s life in a home and his dissolving family memories. Still Time is a novel Shakespeare would be proud of.”
—David Crystal, author of
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and Shakespeare’s Words
“The tone of Still Time is deceptively quiet. Why then did I read it with heart-pounding excitement? Because it is, from start to finish, a high-wire act of literary daring. Only a master could bring off this feat. Jean Hegland brings it off.”
—Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex
“This book is for anyone who appreciates a beautifully written, character-driven story . . . Heartbreaking in the best possible way.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Just as with Into the Forest, Jean Hegland haunts yet again in Still Time, a highly evocative read, managing to strike with pinpoint accuracy at several raw emotions. It’s also a wonderfully intelligent read and Jean deftly weaves in characters and prose from Shakespeare’s greatest, expertly creating connections between these references and John’s deteriorating thoughts. Absolutely recommended.”
“An absolutely riveting read from beginning to end . . . Jean Hegland is a superb novelist whose deftly crafted characters and thoroughly absorbing story make this one of those all to rare novels that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished and set back upon the shelf . . . Very highly recommended.”
—Midwest Book Review
“A poignant story about loss. . . . this is a novel which will resonate for Shakespeare enthusiasts, academics, and those with only a school knowledge of Shakespeare . . . Read it and experience the power of words once more, as love and Shakespeare bind audience and characters together in perfect harmony. Still Time is a heart-warming novel.”
“Still Time isn’t a derivative version of any Shakespeare play, but it contains multitudes . . . This isn’t a tearjerker—though it’s likely to make you cry. This isn’t a simple narrative—though it’s clear. This isn’t a story about recovery from loss—though it provides thoughts on that subject.”
—Bardfilm, The Shakespeare and Film Microblog
“I’m not sure if it’s heartbreakingly beautiful or beautifully heartbreaking . . . I recommend it very highly.”
—The Bill Shakespeare Project
“What a lovely surprise I found reading Still Time—an elegant, sharply intelligent but emotionally intuitive novel . . . Hegland is the first author I’ve read who makes Alzheimer’s both a central element in the novel and a metaphor for larger questions the novel raises about the human condition . . . Profound.”
—Alice in Memoryland
“If you have a relative with Alzheimer’s, or love Shakespeare, or are a bit curious about how online gaming relates to it all, this novel is definitely for you.”
Book Group Guide
- After his failed marriages, John views his union with Sally as a final chance “at wiving.” What other opportunities for second chances—accepted or refused—do you find in Still Time? What does the novel suggest about second chances? Do you agree with that stance?
- What do you think motivates Sally to move John to a memory care home despite both her generous nature and her deep love for him? What might motivate Miranda to persist in visiting John, despite the frustration, hurt, and disappointment her previous visits have caused both of them?
- In what ways does John fail Miranda, and in what ways does he come through for her? At the end of the novel, Miranda has come to believe that as a father, John “had tried harder—and suffered more—than she had ever given him credit for” (226-7). Do you agree?
- Do you think that John and Miranda ever truly manage to reconcile? If so, when and how? If not, what would it take for them to achieve some kind of genuine reconciliation? Do you think it’s possible for family members to heal relationships that have been as profoundly damaged as John and Miranda’s was? Have you witnessed anything similar in your own experience?
- When John reads King Lear for the final time (199-208), he is unable to recall how the play ends, and yet—at least momentarily—he is affected very powerfully by his reading. What do you find interesting, ironic, moving, or memorable about John’s last extended experience with Shakespeare?
- When and how were you first introduced to Shakespeare, and what subsequent experiences have you had with his work? How do you think those previous experiences influenced your reading of Still Time? Has reading Still Time had any effect on your relation to Shakespeare?
- Still Time contains many references to the language, characters, themes, and situations of Shakespeare’s plays. For example, when John reads King Lear, he seems to be identifying with the King Lear’s plight, and while Miranda’s name obviously invites a comparison with Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest, she might also be seen as sharing traits with characters such as Cordelia in King Lear and Ophelia in Hamlet. What other references to Shakespeare’s work did you notice in Still Time, and how did they affect your reading of the novel?
- What experiences have you had with people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease? How did those experiences influence your reading of Still Time? Did reading Still Time have any influence on your thoughts or feelings about memory loss? How well do you think Still Time captures the experience of someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s?
- Did you notice ways in which the evolution of computer games or Miranda’s interest in their various structures and their potential for story-telling are reflected elsewhere in the novel?
- At the end of his career, John is profoundly disturbed by his profession’s move away from Humanism, which he defines as, “that philosophical system that assumes…that all human beings share an essential nature,” and are able to “learn and grow and change, and that art—and literature—can fuel that evolution” (91). What are your thoughts about the benefits and the dangers of a world-view that values the individual human so highly?
- Early on in Still Time, John recalls telling his students that “He who ends with the most understanding wins” (8). What does John mean when he says that? How might that claim relate to his and to Miranda’s trajectories in the novel?
With special thanks to the Bookie Club of Sonoma County and the No-Name Book Club of the Mendocino Coast.
Questions & Answers
The point of view in Still Time is quite unusual. What inspired you to write from the perspective of a Shakespeare scholar with Alzheimer’s disease?
I am an avid theatergoer with a life-long love of Shakespeare. Before I was born, my parents began a yearly tradition of visiting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Nearly every summer since then, a large group of family members and close friends have gathered outside of Ashland, Oregon to camp, hang out, and attend plays together.
Late one night about ten years ago, I was in my tent trying to catch a little sleep, but an odd jumble of lines, phrases, and speeches from the plays I had just seen kept running through my mind. I became intrigued by the unexpected new patterns of sound, feeling, and meaning those broken mosaics of Shakespeare’s language were creating in my drowsy brain, and I began to wonder if that might be similar to the experience of someone with dementia, for whom individual moments and memories might still be very vivid and meaningful, though they would not necessarily add up in any logical or linear way.
Especially since I understood that often the memories people with dementia retain the longest are either of powerful early experiences or of songs, poems, or even advertising jingles that they had once learned by heart, I became fascinated to imagine what it might be like for someone to have William Shakespeare’s plays as a final lens or key with which to attempt to make sense of the world. What would it be like to have Shakespeare’s plays as a guide, even as other facts, thoughts, and experiences were slipping away?
Did Still Time involve any special research?
I spent almost a decade doing research for Still Time!
First, although I’d been a long-time fan of William Shakespeare, I’d only ever taken a single Shakespeare course in college. To do justice to John’s experience, I needed to learn a great deal more about Shakespeare’s work, life, and times. Not only did I want to gain an intimate knowledge of the plays John devoted his life to, but I also needed to learn about the scholarship he would have studied as a student and the kind of criticism he would have been engaged in creating—and refuting—as an academic in the second half of the twentieth century. Consequently, I spent many happy hours reading and rereading Shakespeare’s plays, studying criticism, and attending productions everywhere I could, from local parks and school auditoriums to theaters in London and Stratford-upon-Avon.
Computer games were another subject I needed to learn a lot more about. In addition to playing a few games myself, I talked with gamers, read about the evolution of computer games, game theory, and narrative structures, and watched lots of playthroughs and walkthroughs. Although my research didn’t turn me into a full-fledged gamer (at least, not yet . . .), it did give me a profound respect for the storytelling and story-shaping potential of computer games as well as for the women who are breaking into that male-dominated field.
I also needed to deepen my understanding of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. When I first got the idea for Still Time, I had recently begun leading a weekly poetry session at a care facility for people with dementia, and I continued my work there for nearly a decade, until my other caregiving commitments became too intense. Volunteering there was a very meaningful experience for me. Each visit gave me new insights into the lives of people with dementia, and also offered further proof of the extremely positive influence poetry can have on people at every stage of those challenging diseases.
Finally, although I had been an amateur “bee helper” for several years, when I realized that Sally also worked with bees, I welcomed that opportunity to delve even further into the world of those remarkable (and currently very beleaguered) creatures.
Other than your volunteer work, have you had any personal experience with Alzheimer’s disease?
Before I began Still Time, I’d watched several of my aunts and a close friend’s husband struggle with dementia. When I was nearing the end of my work on Still Time, it became clear that my own dear mother was also contending with memory issues. Frankly, I’m not at all sure I would have had the courage to try to inhabit John’s experience so deeply if my mother had begun to exhibit her symptoms any sooner. But my daily involvement with her, my weekly poetry sessions at the memory care facility, and my years of work on Still Time all helped to convince me that, although dementia and Alzheimer’s are frightening, frustrating, and heart-breaking diseases, both dementia sufferers and their families may still have many opportunities for pleasure, change, growth, and meaningful moments.
And, ultimately, isn’t that all that any of us ever has?
What is it about Shakespeare?
I promise I don’t think about or quote from Shakespeare as obsessively as John does, but ultimately, William Shakespeare is my guy, too. He’s my literary crush, the famous person I would most love to have dinner with, my inspiration and my consolation, and if I could only have access to one book for the rest of my life, hands down it would be his Complete Works.
I love Shakespeare’s work because it is so vast and so various, because his language is so often stunning, because his characters have a humanity and a complexity that has kept them alive for over four centuries, and because his plays are not afraid to grapple with life’s most harrowing situations and emotions, while also exploring and celebrating many of life’s greatest joys. Each time I return to Shakespeare, I discover something more—another challenge, a fresh insight, a new delight. One of the great pleasures of writing Still Time was the chance it gave me to deepen my relationship with Shakespeare, and to share some of my passion with others.
Still Time is peppered with references to, and words and lines from, Shakespeare’s plays. Do you expect your readers to recognize them all?
Absolutely not! It’s my great hope that, no matter what readers’ current relationships to Shakespeare happen to be, they will feel comfortable with the Shakespeare references in Still Time. I’d like to think that readers who are already familiar with Shakespeare will enjoy those references and maybe even find new ideas to ponder or insights to appreciate as they read. But it’s just as important to me that readers with limited or even negative exposure to Shakespeare will also enjoy reading Still Time. Many of the references are simply meant to give readers a sense of how someone whose passion is Shakespeare might think, so understanding exactly what each one means or knowing which play it comes from really doesn’t matter. There are some lines and concepts from the plays that are crucial to understanding the plot or appreciating John’s thoughts, and I tried very hard to make sure that those get explained along the way.
Do you have any suggestions for readers who don’t know much about Shakespeare, but feel inspired to delve a little further into the plays?
I’m always delighted when people tell me that reading Still Time has piqued their interest in Shakespeare! My biggest piece of advice for anyone who hasn’t had much experience with Shakespeare (or whose experience has been negative) is that they should NOT begin by trying to read his plays.
Meeting Shakespeare’s lively but unusual language for the first time on the page can be frustrating and intimidating. In addition, reading the script of any play can be a challenge. Although many people eventually come to find that reading Shakespeare’s plays is even more satisfying than attending performances of them, trying to envision what the characters look like, where they are, and what they are doing, feeling, and thinking simply by reading what they are saying can take a lot of practice.
I think attending live performances or watching films are much more likely to give someone new to Shakespeare the immersive experience Shakespeare intended us to have. Hearing actors speak Shakespeare’s lines can make those 400-year-old words more immediately comprehensible, while watching actors respond to each other and react to the situations they are in can bring the characters and their emotions and desires to life in a thrillingly compelling way. Keep in mind that not even the finest scholar alive will comprehend everything in one of Shakespeare’s plays; let the experience sweep over you, and remember, there’ll be no test at the end!
Readers interested in developing their relationship with Shakespeare might want to check out my Shakespeare Resources page.
Do you have any insights to share with readers who are already familiar with Shakespeare?
One set of themes in Shakespeare’s plays that has long resonated for me, and which was particularly meaningful as I imagined my way into John and Miranda’s story, has to do with recognition, understanding, reconciliation, and redemption. I’ve been fascinated to trace the evolution of those themes over the course of Shakespeare’s career, and I enjoyed weaving them into Still Time.
To begin with, recognition is often a major motif in Shakespeare’s early comedies, where disguises and mixed-up identities abound, and the challenges of being able to identify other people are typically quite literal. For example, in the Comedy of Errors, two sets of identical twins cause all sorts of delightful confusion before their identities get sorted out in the end.
In the later comedies and in the tragedies that many people consider to be Shakespeare’s most powerful plays, the motif of recognition has evolved to include metaphorical recognition as well, what we might call epiphany or understanding. For example, when the play King Lear begins, King Lear does not understand which of his three daughters really care for him and which have only their own interests at heart, and it’s that lack of understanding that drives him mad. Later, after his sanity has been restored, he wakes from a deep sleep to find a woman sitting next to him who he takes at first to be a “soul in bliss.” Even more significant than the moment when he realizes that that woman is actually his daughter Cordelia, is his subsequent recognition that Cordelia might have some legitimate cause to hate him, and his understanding that he is “a very foolish fond old man” who needs forgiveness.
Finally, in the last plays that Shakespeare wrote, the plays that John and many critics call the romances, what gets celebrated is not literal recognition or even cerebral understanding but reconciliation and forgiveness. In those plays, identifying who people are or even understanding what they have or haven’t done does not matter nearly as much as the connections that can be achieved when families are reunited and people forgive each other.
Whether that vision of the redemptive powers of forgiveness is a profound insight and yet another proof of Shakespeare’s genius or whether it’s mere wish fulfillment (and perhaps even, as some critics have claimed, evidence Shakespeare’s own failing mind) is a question that theatergoers, readers, and critics have grappled with since Shakespeare’s day, and it’s certainly one of the many questions I tried to explore in Still Time.
Some of the other themes that have moved, challenged, or fascinated me in Shakespeare’s plays and that also found their way into Still Time have to do with identity, memory, confusion, dreams, second chances, father/daughter relationships, and the power and limitations of art.
Can you explain the dedication?
Gladly! I dedicated Still Time to Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell because it was the two of them who compiled and edited the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays (what’s now called the “First Folio”).
Publishing a collection of plays in 1623 was about as unusual as publishing a collection of scripts from a sit-com would be today. But after Shakespeare died in 1616, Heminge and Condell had the foresight (or business acumen) to realize that Shakespeare’s plays needed to be preserved. About half of his plays had already been published during his lifetime in small, relatively disposable, and often unauthorized pamphlets called “quartos.” But eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays (including Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) appeared in print for the first time thanks to John Heminge and Henry Condell. Giving those two a little posthumous credit in Still Time seemed like the least I could do to honor what they gave to me—and to the world.