Lisa Genova is the New York Times best-selling author of Inside the O’Briens, Love Anthony, Left Neglected, and, most notably, her debut novel, Still Alice. The book, which tells the story of a cognitive psychology professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was turned into a major motion picture that starred Julianne Moore and earned her a Best Actress Oscar. Genova’s latest work, Every Note Played, centers on a concert pianist dealing with a devastating ALS diagnosis.
It’s no coincidence that Genova’s work focuses on neurological and brain disorders: She graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a bachelor of science degree in biopsychology and holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University.
Today, she travels internationally speaking about Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, and autism. Genova is also featured in the Emmy-winning documentary To Not Fade Away, and her TED Talk “What You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s” has been viewed almost 3.5 million times.
Prior to her participation at the Boston Speaker Series at Symphony Hall on Oct. 12, Genova, who resides with her family in Massachusetts, talked to Exhale about books, biology, and being empowered.
Exhale: What got you interested in neuroscience?
Lisa Genova:I have always been interested in biology. I knew back in high school I wanted to work in science. When I got to college, I took a psychology course and I was hooked. I love learning how the brain works and how it breaks, how it allows us to be ourselves.
How did you transition from a career in science to becoming an author?
It wasn’t my plan. My grandma had Alzheimer’s. I did my best to understand the disease. I didn’t know how to be with her as a granddaughter. I felt bad for her and for us. I couldn’t get the empathy I needed. I didn’t know how to stay connected with her. I looked for stories to help me find the feeling I needed. The great things about stories and/or books is they make learning about the disease accessible, so we can learn about how individuals live with their disease. They educate, they teach compassion, and help us find empathy. Most importantly, they Invite conversations about a topic that people are reluctant to talk about. Stories make the unfamiliar familiar.
Writing about neurological disorders doesn’t seem like the easiest topic to tackle. How much research do you do to properly tell their story?
I take my homework seriously; my research is far more than a Google search. I read all related text and medical books, interview specialists, and get to know the experts. My experts are the ones who are living with the disease.
Every Note Played is your newest book. Can you tell us about it?
It’s about a concert pianist with ALS. The story was inspired by Still Alice co-director Richard Glatzer. He had ALS and died in 2015. Most people are familiar with ALS because of the ice bucket challenge or Stephen Hawking. You know the three letters, but you don’t feel anything for them. This story was an opportunity to go beyond the ice bucket and learn about the ones living and dying with ALS every day.
In today’s complex, unsettled world, what are the tools that you use to stay empowered as a woman?
What a big question! Everything is in how you hold it. I appreciate that I grew up in a much better time than women did 100 years ago. This is a great time to be a woman. We are rallying and we are supporting each other. As the mother of a college-age daughter, I am happy there are far less barriers for her than I had when growing up. We need to live with a purpose and fight for it. As women, we are definitely living in a moment of history.