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Globe South Behind the Scenes

Seeing only half the picture

Novelist explores brain injury’s impact

Lisa Genova says she received crucial support from the Duxbury Library. Lisa Genova says she received crucial support from the Duxbury Library.
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / January 27, 2011

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A young, too-busy mom is moving too fast to see the full picture of what’s going on in her life. In a car accident caused by her inattention to the road, she suffers a traumatic brain injury, leading to a condition called “left neglect.’’

“In her journey of recovery,’’ Lisa Genova writes in a description of her new novel, “she not only pays attention to everything her mind wants her to ignore, she learns to pay attention to her heart’s truest desires.’’

Genova, whose first book was self-published before winning critical acclaim and making the best-seller list, will speak about her new book, “Left Neglected,’’ at the Duxbury Free Library this weekend as part of the Sunday Salon series.

Left neglect is a neuropsychological condition caused by damage to the right hemisphere of the brain that leaves it unable to interpret information from the left side of the perceptual field. You simply don’t know that anything is there anymore, said Genova, a neuroscientist with a doctorate from Harvard.

In the course of her research on subjects such as depression, Parkinson’s disease, drug addiction, and memory loss, Genova discovered left neglect in the technical literature and in such books as Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.’’

In that book, Sacks recounts the case of a man who senses there’s something in bed with him but doesn’t realize it’s his own left leg. So he tries to throw it off the bed — with the result that he falls out of bed every night.

“How do you live with that?’’ Genova asks. “How do you negotiate the whole world if you’re only aware of half of it?’’

The novel took off from that question and led her into the even deeper issue of “what we pay attention to and what we don’t pay attention to,’’ she said. “We text on the road. . . . It’s about slowing down.’’

Her first book, “Still Alice,’’ also resulted from a desire to make a novelistic exploration into human consciousness fed by her knowledge of neuroscience.

When her grandmother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, Genova read everything she could on the subject and realized that these views of the disorientation and terrors of Alzheimer’s all came “from the outside looking in. What would it be like from the inside?’’ she asked.

Someday, she told herself, she would write a novel from that perspective.

That day came when her first child was born and she and her husband moved to Cape Cod. Rather than living the too-busy life of her protagonist in “Left Neglected,’’ she became a stay-at-home parent and wrote her novel.

Unable to find a literary agent, she decided to self-publish the book in 2007, using a company that produced copies only as they were ordered. “I was literally selling books out of the trunk of my car,’’ Genova said.

No major bookstores would sell her novel, though some independent stores took a couple at a time. Using the Internet, she helped create a buzz for the book and hired a local publicist.

Then “Still Alice’’ received a rave review from Globe columnist Beverly Beckham, which brought the book to the attention of writer Julia Fox Garrison. Garrison’s agent agreed to take on “Still Alice,’’ suddenly publishers were interested, and the book was sold at auction in the summer of 2008 to Simon & Schuster, which published the novel the following year.

In a stranger-than-fiction twist, Genova called Garrison to thank her for her help, and when Garrison asked her if she had another book going, Genova said, “Yes, it’s about a condition called left neglect.’’ After a silence, Garrison said, “I have left neglect.’’

Genova has strong feelings of gratitude toward Duxbury Library, too, based on the enthusiastic audience response to her talk on “Still Alice’’ three years ago and librarian Carol Jankowski’s support for her book.

“I’ll do events in Duxbury forever,’’ she said.

Jankowski (now the library’s director) read the self-published edition of “Still Alice’’ and bought it for the library.

“I had just finished the book and was so blown away,’’ Jankowski recalled. “I just came into the office and e-mailed [Genova] and booked her for the series.’’

The library’s Sunday Salon series of author talks continues next month on Feb. 6 with minister Judith Campbell, who will discuss her first novel, a murder mystery titled “A Deadly Mission.’’ Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

Lisa Genova speaks about her novel “Left Neglected’’
Duxbury Free Library, 77 Alden St.
Sunday, 2 p.m.
Free tickets from library
781-934-2721