Neuroscience and World War I

A conversation with Wayzata Reads featured author P.S. Duffy

P.S. Duffy
P.S. Duffy

It’s not every day you come across a writer like P.S. Duffy. Aside from gaining critical acclaim for her debut novel, “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land,” Duffy’s likely the sole name at the center of a Venn diagram of people who’ve authored both a graduate-level textbook in neuroscience and a fiction novel set during World War I. It’s safe to say that “multifaceted” is a world that would fit within the “special skills” section of the Minnesota author’s resume.

“The Cartographer of No Man’s Land,” which tells the story of a father at war and a son coming of age at home without him, was selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. It was also a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an international award that recognizes the power of literature to foster peace. The book has been published in Britain, Taiwan, Canada and will soon be out in Hebrew in Israel.

Fortunately for Wayzata readers, fans of Duffy won’t have to travel far to hear more about her career-shifting piece of literature. The author is getting ready to leave her Rochester home and travel north to lead Wayzata in the second-annual Wayzata Reads community book club discussion Thursday, Feb. 26, at Wayzata Library and city hall.

The novel was selected by Wayzata’s former longstanding bookstore, The Bookcase, and the event was organized by the City of Wayzata, Friends of the Wayzata Library and the Wayzata Chamber of Commerce. A pre-presentation book discussion is 1 p.m. at Wayzata Library, followed in the evening by a 7 p.m. author presentation in the Community Room at Wayzata City Hall.

Between Duffy’s scientific research and thinking about her next novel, which the author has decided to keep mum about, she found time to talk with the Sun Sailor about her inspiration for the book, the research that went into it and how it feels it be making a return trip to Wayzata.

Question: How long have you lived in Minnesota?

Duffy: Close to 30 years. I came up here from Washington, D.C. to get my doctorate from the University of Minnesota, and I have no intention of leaving. I think Minnesota is the ideal state to live in and I consider myself so fortunate to have landed here 30 years ago.

Q: You had a 25-year career in neuroscience and you write for Mayo Clinic on the topic. How did someone involved in the neurosciences end up writing a fiction novel centered on World War I?

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Duffy: I’ve been writing since childhood – for family or myself and am happiest in the world of imagination and words. But the lines between fiction and neuroscience aren’t all that far apart. At their best, both ask questions and engage the imagination; both ultimately seek to understand who we are. Fiction asks what motivates us and what connects and separates us? Neuroscience seeks to understand not just the brain, but the mind. My work was in the area of neurologic impairments that affect speech and language. Communication is a major means of expressing who we are (telling our stories) and connecting with and understanding others and the world around us. When it is impaired, we are isolated and locked in. My research and clinical work were focused on helping to overcome that isolation. Telling stories – on life, death and rebirth – is as old and as universal as language itself, and it’s a means of overcoming inner isolation by connecting us and engaging our empathy.

Q: What inspired you write the World War I set novel?

Duffy: Despite the fact that the book came out at the centenary of World War I, I didn’t intend to write a “World War I novel.” I wanted to write about a break in the relationship between a father and son set against the backdrop of schooner fishing in Nova Scotia, an area of Canada I’m very familiar with. In alternating chapters, the book takes place on the home front in Nova Scotia and on the battlefields of France. It was my intention to set the book after the war, around 1920 and write about negotiating upheaval and loss. But, knowing that every character would have been affected by the war, I began to research it. The deeper I went, the more I saw my characters in the war – as I myself felt I was. In some ways, I needed them to get me out of it and to help me heal from it – which they did.

Q: What kind of research did you do in writing the book?

Duffy: The research took four or five years. I used primary and secondary sources for both the war and life in Nova Scotia at that time. I’m eternally grateful to the public library system—our Rochester library was able to get every book I needed from Canada through international inter-library loan. Who knew they could do that? I read only nonfiction and poetry and avoided all World War I novels so as not to be influenced by them. I deepened my understanding by visiting the World War I battlefields in France and Belgium. I also conducted on-site research at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia and the military library there. My roots in Nova Scotia go back to the 1750s, and my family summered there for 35 years. I’ve sailed most of my life, so references to sailing and the sea are part of my DNA.

Q: How long did the book take to write? What was the process like?

Duffy: It took about eight years because of the research and because the story changed dramatically once I decided to set it during the war. The writing process was one of discovery. New characters would appear and take on greater roles; others got left on the cutting room floor. I always knew where the story was headed, but not how I’d get there, and I had to let go and be OK with that uncertainty, which is not always easy. But once I see a scene, even though I may not know what will happen in it, I write very fast, and the writing takes me to its end. I hear the rhythm of the language and see the action unfold like a movie as I write. I also love revision, which adds to the pleasure of writing.

Q: Was it what you expected going in?

Duffy: Yes. I was in it for the long haul. What I didn’t expect was to find an agent and a  publisher as quickly as I did once I sent the manuscript out, especially a major publisher like W.W. Norton.

Q: Has writing a novel always been a goal of yours?

Duffy: Yes, since I was a child. I have two other published books: a graduate textbook on cognitive effects of right brain damage and the other a memoir of my family’s time in 1940s China where I was born during the Communist Revolution. But I don’t have a stack of unpublished novels in my desk drawer. This was my first try. To everything there is a season. I couldn’t have written this particular book at a younger age, so I’m glad I waited.

Q: Between your neuroscience writing, novel, and your essays and nonfiction writing, does anything stand out as a work your most proud of?

Duffy: I am proud of all my publications and the writing I do now for Mayo’s Neural Engineering Laboratory, which is focused, as is all of Mayo’s research, on improving patient lives. I would say I’m especially proud of “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land” because it was uncharted territory and thus scary to undertake and incredibly soul satisfying to write.    

Q: Do you have plans or ideas for another novel?

Duffy: Yes, I definitely do, but it is best to keep it quiet for now.

Q: I see you visited The Bookcase in November 2013? Are you excited to come back to Wayzata?

Duffy: I’m so sorry The Bookcase closed. It was the first bookstore outside of Rochester to invite me to present the book, so I have a special place in my heart for Wayzata. It’s a lovely town that’s close to the cities, but with its own very distinct personality. I’m thrilled to be coming back and honored to be part of the community in this way.

Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]

If you go:

Second Annual Wayzata Reads, featuring a discussion led by P.S. Duffy, author of “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land”

Thursday, Feb. 26

1 p.m., pre-presentation book discussion at Wayzata Library, 620 Rice St.

7 p.m., author presentation and discussion in the Community Room at Wayzata City Hall, 600 Rice St.

Info: hclib.org/wayzata.