A Family Bond Across Distance and Lifetimes: Barbara Graham’s ‘What Jonah Knew’

Barbara Graham is a well-established journalist and nonfiction author. But she took a different approach when she decided to tackle the idea of reincarnation. “I believe that every story you tell needs to find its own best form of expression,” she explains. “I also think that fiction can sometimes offer writers the freedom to mine deeper truths than just sticking to the facts. As Jessamyn West said, ‘Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.’”

In What Jonah Knew Graham uses the psychological thriller genre to explore themes of life after death and family bonds. The story follows Helen Bird, a mother searching for her son, Henry, who has mysteriously disappeared in upstate New York. Simultaneously, a boy named Jonah is born to a couple in Manhattan. The boy suffers from night terrors and an obsession with the imaginary “other mom and dog.” The mystery at the novel’s heart is what is at the root of Jonah’s anxiety.

“The story came to me as a sort of download while walking down the street one day,” the author explains. “I’ve always been drawn to the big existential questions. What happens after we die? I’ve always had the sense that consciousness is not just confined to the five senses or bookended by birth and death.” We spoke with Graham to get more insight into her book.

Marin Magazine (MM): What prompted you to explore ideas of reincarnation in this story?

Barbara Graham(BG): “Years ago while working as a journalist, I was assigned a magazine article on past life regression therapy. As part of my research, I had a session with a past-life therapist in which I seemed to have a “memory” of a previous life — not a happy one — during the Holocaust. It was  a powerful experience and intriguing, but I didn’t know what to make of it. But then a few days later, a psychiatrist friend handed me a copy of a book by Dr. Ian Stevenson, himself a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia medical school, who for decades had been studying young children with spontaneous recall of a previous life. This work was extremely credible and I found it fascinating. I’d also heard the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist teachers talk about past and future lives as casually as last Thanksgiving or next Christmas. All of these different threads came together in my mind and the idea for What Jonah Knew was born.

The decision to write the novel wasn’t exactly the result of logic. The story came to me as a sort of download while walking down the street one day — and I knew I had to write it. What’s more, I’ve always been drawn to the big existential questions. What happens after we die? From the time I was quite young I’ve had the sense that consciousness is not just confined to the five senses or bookended by birth and death. So my interest in reincarnation is a natural progression from that. The same is true of ancestral trauma, which is also touched on in the book.”

MM: You write a lot about motherhood. Why do you think you’re drawn to this topic?

BG: “I became a mother at 23, pretty young by today’s standards. And the thing most mothers—and fathers—discover when they have children is that their hearts will forever be walking—often running—around outside their bodies. Motherhood is a lifelong high-wire act, balancing fierce love with letting go. You do everything you can to protect your children, while at the same time surrendering to what you can’t control. In my view, the love of a child is the most exquisite—and sometimes most tortuous—love there is. I’ve had no choice but to write about it.”

MM: Your other books were nonfiction — why did you decide to take a different direction with this book and write a novel?

BG: “As a writer, I believe that every story you want to tell needs to find its own best form of expression. For example, my last book was a memoir because I needed to stick very closely to the facts. But What Jonah Knew had to be a novel since it sprang wholly from my imagination. I also think that fiction can sometimes offer writers the freedom to mine deeper truths than just sticking to the facts. As the writer Jessamyn West said, “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.”

MM: I see you’re also a well-established journalist. What do you find different about writing a novel vs working on articles? Do you enjoy the process?

BG: “Writing the novel was both more fun — and harder — than anything I’ve ever done, and it involved a steep learning curve. I knew the general outline of the story I wanted to tell, but it took me a while — and many drafts — to figure out the best way to tell it. That said, my journalism background proved quite useful along the way. There’s a lot of real research embedded in What Jonah Knew — about inherited family trauma and reincarnation based on academic studies, as well as from Zen and Tibetan Buddhist perspectives.”

MM: What do you think readers can learn from reading this book?

BG: “Perhaps just a glimmer of an idea that our lives might be much vaster and more mysterious than the conventional, materialist view of the world suggests. If we entertain the possibility of karma and rebirth, and that consciousness doesn’t necessarily end with death, then how we live now assumes even greater importance than it already does — for ourselves and our loved ones, as well as how we treat one another and the planet itself. I guess that’s pretty ambitious for a psychological thriller, but there it is. Of course, most of all I hope people have a good time reading the book!”

Barbara Graham will be in conversation with renowned Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Bornstein, in a special book launch event at Book Passage Corte Madera on July 10, 4:00 p.m.

More Great New Reads

Battling the Big Lie by Dan Pfeiffer

This Bay Area-based best-selling author dissects how the right-wing built a massive, billionaire-funded disinformation machine powerful enough to bend reality and nearly steal the 2020 election. From the perspective of someone who has spent decades on the front lines of politics and media, Pfeiffer lays out how the right-wing media apparatus works, where it came from, and what progressives can do to fight back against disinformation. Pfeiffer explains how and why the Republicans have come to depend on culture war grievances, crackpot conspiracies, and truly sinister propaganda as their primary political strategies.

Dan Pfeiffer is a cohost of Pod Save America. One of Barack Obama’s longest serving advisors, he was White House director of communications under President Obama (2009-2013) and senior advisor to the president (2013-2015). He lives in the Bay Area.

See Pfeiffer July 9 at 1:00p.m. in person at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

Her Dying Day by Mindy Carlson

Aspiring filmmaker June Masterson has high hopes for her first documentary, the true story of the disappearance of famed mystery author Greer Larkin. June learned about the vanishing at age fourteen, locked down on her family’s isolated commune. Now, the deeper she digs into the project, the darker the story gets. Perfect for fans of Shari Lapena and Hannah Mary McKinnon, a mystery writer’s sudden disappearance leads a budding filmmaker down a dark road to treachery, murder, and long-buried sins. 

Mindy Carlson grew up as an animal- and mystery-loving girl in Iowa before heading to California to see what she could make of her life. Now she lives in Maryland and is a successful parenting author, with pieces appearing in The Washington Post, Big Life Journal, and AFineParent.com. Her Dying Day is her debut novel.

See Carlson July 16 at 1:00 p.m. in person at Book Passage in Corte Madera

Reviews by Paula Farmer of Book Passage

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Jessica Gliddon

Jessica Gliddon is the Group Digital Content Manager for Marin Magazine. An international writer and editor, she has worked on publications in the UK, Dubai and Cape Town. She is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, and is the former editor of Abu Dhabi’s airline magazine, Etihad Inflight. When she’s not checking out the latest exhibit at SFMOMA or searching out the best places to eat and drink near her home in San Francisco, she volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.