TreeHouse Arts: Your current novel, Visions of a Dream, centers on the spiritual journey of Alexander the Great. Tell us a bit about the book and what drew you to the life of Alexander the Great in particular.
Justine Johnston Hemmestad: A few years after I nearly died in a car accident I watched a documentary about Alexander the Great (during one of my times that I felt so tired due to brain injury fatigue). Finding the meaning within his words (as brought back by his officers and recorded in the work of the ancient historian Arrian), truly meditating on his words and sensing his motivations, and joining that to the history of what he did and the times in which he lived, led me to learn more about his internal drive, i.e. his spiritual life. I wanted his life within each of the lands he conquered to be truly authentic to the actual history and cultural and spiritual practices of the people in those places. I wrote about Alexander’s historically documented companion Hephaestion and I journey through his mind via their relationship, but I also wanted to show Alexander as challenged by the beliefs of the new lands he went into because I knew he bonded with them, so I did this by writing a fictional character called Baphomet (a name that means ‘the absorption of knowledge’ in ancient times). I used her to discover regions of his beliefs and his heart that he might not otherwise have traveled.
TH: You started writing not long after having gone through a traumatic car accident that left you immobilized with a severe brain injury. Tell us a bit about how your recovery process from the accident led to the start of your writing career. Did you write at all prior to the accident?
JJH: Before my accident my written reports for various classes in high school tended to run too long since I loved the research and usually had a lot of material that I wanted to include, but I didn’t feel the same drive to write then that I felt after my accident. I was only 19 at the time of my injury, and though I was married, I had a lot of maturing to do in regard to being true to myself. As I recovered after my accident, I began to write my prayers though I could barely hold a pen, but for some reason I knew that the connection in writing was what I needed. Then when my husband and I moved to the Midwest a year after my accident, I began to write books (I was also pregnant with our first child). I could feel what writing was doing for my recovery, especially for my thinking processes. I could feel my mind slowly organize. Even as I was researching Alexander, I knew I needed that kind of perseverance and sensitivity in my own recovery. Writing also led to my return to college, which has in turn bettered my writing. I was able to take several Iowa Writer’s Workshop courses as I was earning my BLS through The University of Iowa. The learning process through college was similar but even more rigorous to my research for Visions of a Dream, and as I continued to feel challenged and sharpened I saw my memory and thought processes improve. Both writing and college have worked hand in hand for my recovery.
TH: You mentioned in a previous article that your novella, Truth Be Told, uses a lot of symbolism. Talk to us about your use of this literary device and why you included so much of it in this particular book. Do you have any other devices like symbolism that you also tend to favor?
JJH: I love to use symbolism because it stretches my mind (which helped me heal post brain injury). Thinking in new ways promotes neuroplasticity, creating new connections in my brain when the old may have been too scarred, which I believe helped me heal (so it was very personalized). Symbolism helps me to see things in a different way, to feel a concept or idea rather than rationalize it. Symbolism sinks deeper into the understanding of my soul more so than plain ideas/words – I feel like I’m all ears. It may go back to my coma – I felt people and felt their voices and I understood them through the symbolism that their voices created in my mind. It’s become an easier language for me to understand than plain words, it means more to me because it requires effort to understand the puzzle it presents. People always say what they’re thinking if I understand in terms of symbolism, meaning that nothing is hidden. In that way, I guess I feel more prepared in life when I may otherwise be at a disadvantage due to my injury.
TH: You stated in an interview that the title for Visions of a Dream came to you in a dream. Many artists have made similar statements about their own ideas over the years. Do you come up with ideas in your sleep often? Any thoughts on why this seems to be a somewhat common phenomena among artists?
JJH: I think it may be common among artists because they tend to feel inspiration more readily. Rational thinking is subdued during dreams, allowing inspiration full reign in the mind. I think dreams are a form of inspiration. When I dream, my rational defenses are down – I don’t think “no, this can’t be happening” or “I can’t think that” but I listen and am humble to spiritual thinking/imagery. I always have a notebook and pen with me when I go to sleep because if I am so relaxed that I dream, then I know I only have a few moments that I’ll remember it so I write it down, and I know how important these deep imagery meanings are; I know it’s message is something I wouldn’t normally understand in the normal progression of life. My story lines all come to me this way, and I understand my characters’ motivations and reactions this way too. Often now when I go to bed and close my eyes to sleep, I know that the real writing begins and I’m prepared. Ancient Egyptians believed that to write something down before it happened made it happen, and it’s my belief that they recorded their victories in battle before they had even fought the battle. They were an inspired people. In a sense, writing holds that kind of magic for me too. I feel like I wrote my way to recovery.
TH: As a mother of 7 children working on her Master’s in Literature, you definitely have your hands full. How do you manage to schedule writing time with everything else you have to accomplish in a day?
JJH: It’s easier now because three of my kids are adults – but when they were all young, going from taking care of them to being in the writing “zone” when the moment came – often in a split second – taught me discipline of mind. My kids were my greatest healers, in part because they taught me focus and I tried to keep them focused. Focus helped me keep my story lines straight and my characters defined even when memory was so hard for me due to my brain injury. Some of my favorite “writing” time has been when I’m doing mundane housework because my mind is relaxed while my hands are busy. This exercised my memory because I focused so hard on what I wrote in my head to write it down when I could. Reading what I write is especially hard for me also, and focus helps.
TH: Besides writing, what other forms of spiritual and/or creative self-care do you use in your daily life?
JJH: Writing is extremely spiritual for me, it’s a sacred practice – I use a prayer journal and a dream journal, both of which have helped me journey deep into my relationship with spirit/God, and both of which have not only helped me grow spiritually but also distinguish the lives of my characters through the inspiration I’m given. Writing is like dreaming for me because my mind defenses are down and I’m all ears (sensing spirit/inspiration). Learning is also spiritual to me, maybe because my mind was so wounded. Going into a library is like going to church for me. College is also vital for my well-being and creativity – researching and truly analyzing words within stories for deeper meaning.
TH: Your son Bradley Hemmestad of Max Graphics designed the cover art for Visions of a Dream and your other son Caleb Hemmestad of Hemmestad Art created a publicity drawing for it as well. Obviously, creativity runs in your family. Is there any particular advice you have shared with your children about the creative arts that you can pass on to our readers?
JJH: Thank you! What I love most about my kids’ artistic talent is that they’re all so individualized. They follow their own inspiration and concepts, and they’re not shaped by anyone else’s talent or opinion. They’re not afraid of being themselves in their art. I love how authentic as people and as artists that makes them. I admire them so much that I feel humbled by them. I think that to be authentic in life is an accomplishment in itself.
Justine Johnston Hemmemstad is a wife, mother of 7 children, and grandmother of 1, currently working on her Master’s Degree in Literature through Northern Arizona University. She hopes to teach Literature and Creative Writing, in addition to writing novels.