In 'The Afterlives,' Holograms And Ghosts Give Meaning To Life After Death

Feb 5, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 9:18 am

How do you live after you've died? That's the weighty question behind The Afterlives, a new novel by Thomas Pierce, a former producer at NPR who has become an award-winning author.

The book's main character, Jim Byrd, suffers sudden cardiac arrest at age 30 — and survives.

"[He's] a bank loan officer in a small mountain town in the Carolinas," Pierce says. "He dies due to a heart condition, very briefly. But he sees nothing. No lights, or tunnels, or angels, or anything that might ease his fears of what comes next. So he's back, and now he has to move forward with his life and try to make sense of this thing that's happened to him."


Interview Highlights

On how long the author has thought about what happens after we die

I mean, I've always had this sort of mystical streak in me, and I'm a person who's very comfortable with mystery in a certain sense. But then a couple — I was actually writing a very different book four years ago, and then my wife and I had our first child. And I've always, at least intellectually, understood that there is an end to this. We all have an expiration date, but I really began to feel that more acutely for the first time. And there's such a big difference between feeling something and just thinking it.

Little babies and children — they're like, they're these little clocks. You feel time's passage in a way that maybe you hadn't before. And so I went a little deeper in it starting 15 years back. My wife, her great grandfather is a fairly famous clairvoyant from the early part of the 20th century. Her folks have this great library of books related to him but also to all topics, you know — psychic phenomenon, afterlife, and past lives and the spirit world. And I've just loved deep-diving into those books over the last 15 years, and I think it was only a matter of time before I started writing about them a little more explicitly.

On Jim, the protagonist, discovering a ghost story in the midst of his existential questioning

He's on this stairwell in this restaurant ... and he hears this voice. And a lot of the book is trying to figure out, "What is this voice and if there can be such a thing as a ghost, then doesn't that maybe suggest that there is something more?" So it really, for him, is this new avenue to explore, to find some ounce of proof that maybe this is not the end.

On holograms and the purpose they serve in the book

Well, you know, Jim is this person who is looking for some kind of bedrock in a world that does feel so full of mirage and spectacle, and I find that to be true in this, our universe, and the holograms are really just a blown-up version of that.

What can we trust in? What should we put our faith in? What is real and not real? I mean, the holograms are a daily — a constant — reminder of that for him. He goes down the street, and this is a world in which you're walking down the street and maybe you don't know who's flesh and blood. I hope that this holographic future is not the one, but it certainly could be and I feel like it would be very isolating.

On the tension between science and religion in The Afterlives and the author's own leanings [web-extra]

I mean, when you read about physics, things get pretty wacky at the outer fringes of physics and almost take on a certain quasi-mystical aspect to it. I am somewhere in the middle. Throughout time, humans have just tried to explain to themselves what it means to be alive and find some meaning in that. And the terms we use to find that have changed. Today, we have this kind of split: We see it as a split between science and religion. But I think there's a great deal of overlap.

Phil Harrell and Dave Blanchard produced and edited this story for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Jim Byrd died for a little while. His heart stopped. And, technically, he died. When he was revived, everything changed. He had this fear of dying again, fear of dying alone and all kinds of anxiety-ridden questions about what happens on the other side of this life. Byrd is the main character in the new novel by Thomas Pierce. The book is called "The Afterlives," and, yes, it's about big, existential questions, but it's also about love, about grief and about ghosts. I recently spoke with Thomas Pierce about his new book, and we should note, before he became an award-winning author, Thomas was a producer right here at NPR.

So before I get to your preoccupation with death, which you clearly have, let's just start off a little bit easier. Can you introduce us to the main character in your novel? This is a guy named Jim Byrd. Who is he?

THOMAS PIERCE: Yes. Jim Byrd is a bank loan officer in a small mountain town in the Carolinas. He dies due to a heart condition. I'm already to death, I realize.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PIERCE: Moved quickly to death. But he sees nothing, no lights or tunnels or angels or anything, anything that might ease his fears (laughter) of what comes next.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PIERCE: And now he has to move forward with his life and try to make sense of this thing that's happened to him.

MARTIN: Would you mind reading? There's a paragraph that speaks to his angst about what happened to him and what he thinks should have happened to him. This is on page 134.

PIERCE: Yeah. OK. (Reading) Some part of me feared that my experience wasn't the rule, but the exception. The oblivion I'd met possibly had flowed directly from the life I'd lead up to that point. What if, fundamentally, I simply wasn't a good enough person to deserve an afterlife? What if some people have no soul, and I was one of them? What if I'd seen no afterlife because I didn't have the will or ability to believe in one?

MARTIN: So, Thomas, these are big questions to tackle in a novel, in any novel - the biggest questions, you could argue. Is this a recent thing for you, I mean, thinking so much about what happens when we die? Or is this something you have long pondered?

PIERCE: Long pondered, I'd say. I mean, I've always had this sort of mystical streak in me. And then my wife and I had our first child. And I've always at least intellectually understood that there's an end to this. We all have an expiration date. But I really began to feel that more acutely for the first time. And there's such a big difference between feeling something and just thinking it. Little babies and children, they're, like, they're these little clocks. You feel time's passage in a way that maybe you hadn't before. But that really - I went a little deeper in it starting 15 years back. My wife, her great-grandfather is a fairly famous clairvoyant from the early part of the 20th century, and her folks have this great library of books related to him but also to all topics, you know, psychic phenomenon...

MARTIN: Right.

PIERCE: ...Afterlife, and past lives...

MARTIN: The spirit world.

PIERCE: The spirit world. Yeah. And I've just loved deep-diving into those books over the last 15 years, and I think it was only a matter of time before I started writing about them a little more explicitly.

MARTIN: So Jim has this episode. He dies for a moment, and it causes all kinds of existential questioning for him. But then he also happens upon a real-life ghost story. This building, it was a home, you know, a century ago, and now it's this restaurant and all kinds of supernatural things start to occur. Can you walk us through how that feeds what is already becoming an obsession for him?

PIERCE: He's on this stairwell in this restaurant that you mentioned, and he hears this voice. And a lot of the book is trying to figure out, what is this voice, and if there can be such a thing as a ghost then doesn't that maybe suggest that there is something more? So it really for him is this new avenue to explore to find some ounce of proof that maybe this is not the end.

MARTIN: We should note that this is not taking place in this moment, right? This story takes place slightly in the future?

PIERCE: Yeah. I've seen it described that way, as a slightly futuristic book. I was not thinking of it that way when I wrote it.

MARTIN: There are holograms walking around, Thomas.

PIERCE: There are holograms, that's true. That's true. But, you know, three days from now, I'm pretty sure there might be holograms walking around.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PIERCE: That's what it feels like. You know, it's...

MARTIN: The future as in, like, maybe next year?

PIERCE: Yeah. Maybe next year. We'll say next year.

MARTIN: What do the holograms give you in this narrative? What do they do for Jim?

PIERCE: Well, you know, Jim is this person who is looking for some kind of bedrock in a world that does feel so full of mirage and spectacle. And I find that to be true in this, our universe. And the holograms are really just a blown-up version of that. What can we trust in? What should we put our faith in? What is real and not real? I mean, the holograms are a constant reminder of that for him, and this is a world in which you're walking down the street and maybe you don't know who's flesh and blood. I hope that this holographic future is not the one, but it certainly could be, and I feel like it would be very isolating.

MARTIN: Well, that was another thing I wanted to ask about because a lot of this book deals with the ways that we remember people who have died, whether it's the graves that we visit or photos that we look at. And in this slightly futuristic tale, people can create holograms that their loved ones can revisit when they die. Personally, is that a reassuring thought to you, that if you lost someone you could recreate them in this hologram form even for just a moment?

PIERCE: No. (Laughter). I don't think I'd want to. I wouldn't want to be remembered that way. And I'm not sure it would be healthy, for me, at least. You know, but I'm even the sort of person who I sometimes wonder why we even, you know, film, you know, home movies. This is not so different than that in a lot of ways. It just becomes more three-dimensional.

MARTIN: Why do you see those as similar?

PIERCE: Well, it's, you know, it's more for the living, the people who are still here, and to re-experience that person in some sense, to conjure them back up, to remember what it was like to be in their presence. I get - I mean, I get the need for that. I think it scratches an itch, but the reality is they're still gone.

MARTIN: Have you ever had an encounter with a spirit, do you think?

PIERCE: (Laughter). Yeah, do I think is probably the operative. I don't think so. But again, I'm very open to things that are not explained, and I just have a hard time believing that this material universe is all there is.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Afterlives." It's written by Thomas Pierce. Thomas, thanks so much for talking with us about your book.

PIERCE: Thank you very much, Rachel. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.