When I heard about Alyssa Sheinmel’s extraordinary research into face transplants for her novel Faceless, published by Chicken House, I was stunned the movie Face Off could have been based on reality. Face transplants are a real thing. Maybe not in the same way as in Face Off but still a possibility.
I was so intrigued to discover more I decided to interview best-selling YA author, Alyssa Sheinmel, for my regular Research Secrets section of Writers’ Forum, issue Aug 2016 #178.
Alyssa told me she knew she wanted to write a book about a girl who was in a horrific accident, a girl who struggled to understand how much of who she was is tied to what she looked like and it was her American editor who suggested a girl for whom a face transplant was her best hope at having a normal life after reading an article in The New Yorker about a full face transplant.
“I’m pretty sure I underlined more of the article than I left blank! My favourite line came from a plastic surgeon, who explained that while other surgeons made you well by taking you apart – by cutting out the parts of you that are no longer functional, that are diseased, that have turned toxic – plastic surgeons make you well by putting you back together. (A version of that explanation made its way into Faceless.)”Alyssa Sheinmel
She explained she began her research by reaching out to doctors she already knew – her general practitioner, a friend who’d gone to medical school and a friend of her sister who was a plastic surgeon that specialized in reconstruction who answered her myriad of questions.
In particular, she wanted to ensure Maisie’s injuries were realistic. For example, could she have been burned in such a way that she’d need to replace her cheeks, nose, and chin, but retain her jaw? This doctor explained that pretty much everything about these surgeries is unusual, so there were no hard and fast rules. He also provided Alyssa with a detail that really stayed with her: it takes a while for the nerves to grow into transplanted skin, so for a period after her surgery, Maisie’s face would feel like sort of a mask hanging off of her – it might actually feel heavy. This detail made its way into Faceless.
Even so, Alyssa revealed she was worried about taking up these doctors’ time with her incessant questions but found these experts often wanted to talk about their respective fields
“It’s challenging when you’re talking to such ‘important’ people – when I was interviewing a plastic surgeon, for example, I kept apologizing for taking up time that he could be spending with his patients. But he insisted that he was happy to give me his time and answer his questions.”Alyssa Sheinmel
Like all transplant patients, face transplant recipients are put on immunosuppressive drug regimens. Alyssa revealed her editor had a few doctor and medical student friends who were incredibly helpful with these questions in particular. What were the side effects like? How many pills would she have to take? At sixteen, Maisie has already been told that she can’t carry a child because her medication could cause birth defects. She found what the pills looked like by searching on Google.
Alyssa explained the immunosuppressive regimen became a big part of Maisie’s journey. It’s difficult enough for Maisie that she doesn’t look like her old self, but being on these drugs keeps her from feeling like herself too. She’s tired, nauseated, achy. She’s a former straight-A student who can barely stay awake in class anymore.
For Alyssa there isn’t always a straight a line between my research and the story as everything she reads and watches teaches her something about how to tell a story. She told me as she was writing Faceless, she found herself thinking about stories she’d read and movies she’d seen that – on the surface, at least – didn’t really have much in common with her book. But they still were every bit as helpful as all the articles she read and doctors she spoke to about face transplants. There were also things going on in her life that influenced the story such as, a family member underwent surgery and her stay in the hospital and subsequent recovery impacted on Maisie’s experience, too.
The emotional aftermath of surgery was another one of those times when her unintentional research came in to play. Years ago – well before she started working on Faceless – she watched a documentary called The Crash Reel about American snowboarder Kevin Pearce. Heading into the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it looked like nothing would stop Kevin from bringing home a medal (except possibly, his long-time rivalry with fellow-snowboarder Shaun White). But during practice one day, a horrific crash sends Kevin to the hospital, where he’s treated for a traumatic brain injury. All Kevin wants to do is get back on his board, back to the life he knew before – but his friends and family are worried that snowboarding again could kill him.
In Faceless, Maisie was a runner before her accident – she ran track on her school’s team, she ran alongside her boyfriend, she ran for fun. Running was a huge part of who she was, part of how she defined herself – and after her procedure, she can’t run the way she used to. In fact, she might never be able to run again. Just as Maisie has to give up running, in The Crash Reel, Kevin Pearce has to come to terms with his new reality – a reality that might not include snowboarding.
Another piece of unintentional research helped her with the aftermath of Maisie’s accident – a novel called The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman, which I read years ago as well. It’s the story of an ordinary New Jersey librarian to whom the extraordinary happens: one day, she’s struck by lightning. Afterwards, the world looks different – literally: she can no longer see the colour red. Though Hoffman’s protagonist doesn’t have much in common with Faceless’s main character, Maisie (other than the fact that each have a run-in with lightning), they’re both characters whose lives are changed by somewhat random events, and they have to come to terms with a new normal.
“When I was a freshman in college, my psychology textbook taught me how to insert humour into a dry topic. Magazine articles have prompted (sometimes completely unrelated) story ideas. And certainly, when I watched a documentary about snow-boarding a few years ago, I had no idea it would someday influence a novel I wrote about face transplants.”Alyssa Sheinmel
Alyssa’s tip to other writers when researching is to keep an open mind. She explains you never know where your next idea will come from, which book or article or essay will help you learn how to tell your story. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and learn as much as you can.
You can find out more about Alyssa Sheinmel on her website: www.alysasheinmel.com and follow her on Twitter: @alyssasheinmel.
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