Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 03/14/22

A Light on Altered Land

Becky Bohan’s next chapter. A retired small business owner, the Fort Myers, Florida resident has garnered acclaim for her first novel. A Light on Altered Land, which was a finalist for a 2020 Goldie Award from the Golden Crown Literary Society, explores themes of finding relevance and acceptance in a changing world. The plot follows Ellie Belmont and Kathryn Kepler who, after suffering life-changing losses, have a serendipitous meeting in a Minneapolis coffee shop that sparks a special friendship and a cross-country road trip involving an emotional confrontation with Kathryn’s daughter. Through it all, they strive hold onto the belief that, even when things go awry, a higher wisdom may be at work. 

JWK: What is A Light on Altered Land about and what inspired you to write it?

Becky Bohan: The story revolves around two women in their sixties. Ellie Belmont, a retired college teacher, wants to leave the house she shared with her beloved wife, who has died three years earlier. Kathryn Kepler, a retired psychotherapist, finds life as a country club divorcée lonely. They meet by chance at a coffee shop and bond over downsizing. Sparks of attraction ignite on a road trip from Minnesota to California. After a romantic stopover in Yosemite, they must deal with the real world—Kathryn’s homophobic daughter, deep emotional triggers, and a run-in with the law.

The inspiration for this book came from the movie Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. This movie about two women falling in love in the 1950s moved me so much that I wrote a sequel to the 1952 novel it was based on—Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. I couldn’t get permission to publish my sequel because of copyright issues. But as is often the case, what seems like a setback is an opportunity.

While driving from Minnesota to California with my wife, the idea came to me to write a contemporary story inspired by Carol. I wanted to depict mature, psychologically healthy women who, on a road trip across the American West, face challenges with humor and grace.

I had a vivid sense of the characters and saw their relationship as a model of clear communication, mutual support, and personal integrity. The book also gave me a chance to touch on subjects usually not covered in fiction, such as family-directed after-death care, medicinal cannabis, and Emotional Freedom Technique, a simple method for releasing trauma. Mostly, though, I wanted a compelling, hopeful story that would leave readers cheering for these intrepid characters.

JWK: What does the title mean?

BB: Two images run throughout the book: land and light.

The landscape for Ellie and Kathryn has changed significantly—they have both lost their partners, are dealing with loneliness, and are trying to figure out what comes next. They are also moving into their twilight years, another new land for them, and are facing both societal and internalized ageism. For Kathryn, lesbian attraction is also new territory. And Ellie, a lesbian her entire life, finds herself a dinosaur in an LGBTQI+, nonbinary, gender fluid world.

Light is cleansing and healing. Shining light on areas of discomfort—bringing them out in the open and talking about them—can lead to illumination and healing.

The title, then, reflects the process Ellie and Kathryn take to come to peace with the changing landscape of their lives.

JWK: You have described your lead characters – Ellie and Kathryn – as compassionate and kind mature women who demonstrate the principles of Non-Violent Communication. What is Non-Violent Communication and what moved you to portray the practice of it in your book?

BB: Non-violent Communication (NVC) is a process developed by American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg that sees connection as the goal of communication. I don’t name NVC as such in the book, but I model its use to depict productive discussions. When we disagree with someone or feel uncomfortable, the exchange can spiral into defensiveness, anger, and blame. But if we have tools to empathize with both our own and the other person’s feelings and unmet needs, we can transform conflict into connection.

Both Ellie and Kathryn listen deeply and seek clarification when needed. Many readers have responded to the extraordinary conversations these two characters have.

JWK: How important is it for all of us to communicate kindly even with those with whom we disagree?

BB: Well, it would certainly make for a more peaceful, pleasant world if our priority were connecting in shared humanity rather than demonizing those with whom we disagree.

Everyone’s needs are important, and everyone wants to be heard and understood. Empathy is the key to a true heart connection. While we can’t always agree with another’s point of view, we can try to understand it. As Kathryn tells Ellie, resentment is spiritually corrosive. If we can find peace within, we’ll find greater peace with others.

JWK: While your story follows a lesbian relationship it also touches on issues of ageism and feminism. Do you see these subjects as linked and how so?

BB: Ageism and sexism are linked. Feminism helps explain why this is so.

Females start out at a disadvantage in a patriarchal system. We are seen as secondary to males. Women are expected to conform to a beauty standard—whole advertising, cosmetic and fashion empires are built around those expectations. Much of that beauty standard depends on the appearance of youth. As a woman ages, her social value can diminish, illustrated by Kathryn’s husband leaving her for a younger woman.

Old women are not valued in this culture, which is a shame because we have wisdom and insight to offer. As we adapt to the losses aging inevitably brings, we hone our life to what’s really important—family, friends, community. In other words, love.

JWK: You’re a Star Trek fan and drop several references to the franchise in your book? What is it about the show that speaks to you in a way that you wanted to include it in the book?

BB: I love the optimism of that series. Humanity does have a future, and it’s a good one! Star Trek involves exploration of the unknown, teamwork in solving problems, and acceptance of different cultures.

JWK: Do you have a favorite episode?

BB: Voyager is my favorite series, probably because it features the inimitable Captain Kathryn Janeway. I can’t name a specific episode, but the ones that resonate with me are when two difficult options are presented, but through imagination, negotiation, and wisdom, a third way is found that resolves the issue—maybe not perfectly but at least without committing violence or compromising ethical values. Star Trek models NVC principles by showing the characters discovering the others’ needs and finding a solution.

JWK: Who do you see playing Ellie and Kathryn should there be a movie based on the book?

BB: I’d love Annette Benning to play Kathryn and Ann-Marie MacDonald to play Ellie.

JWK: What’s next for you?

BB: Currently I’m getting my suspense/romance novel The Santorini Setup out into the world. And, I’m writing the sequel to A Light on Altered Land. I’m excited about the story line, which starts four years after the close of the first book. Ellie and Kathryn are living together and facing new challenges with humor and insight.

End Note: Becky Bohan’s new novel, The Santorini Setup, is out now.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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