My eyes felt crusty and heavy, but I opened them as much as I could for—what time was it?—the morning. When the blurriness cleared and things felt a little more lucid, I saw a figure standing before me: new and young and non-lab-coat-wearing. My eyes widened in surprise. It made the figure jump back, putting its hands out in front of itself to apologize.
“Oh, sorry. There was probably a better way of introducing myself,” the girl said. She took a step back. “I’m Lana. It means soft, or fair one. Helen thinks the irony is painful. I think it’s funny.” She cocked her head slightly, her eyes turning into slits as she studied me. “You’re kinda cute,” she said. “And you’ve probably heard that before.” The corners of her mouth turned upward a little.
She had short blonde hair, which appeared to be going in multiple directions at once. Her eyes were hazel and fixated on me.
She was wearing a hospital gown like mine: standard-issue and sickly blue in color, as if to mock our predicaments. She walked to the foot of my bed—gently but confidently. She picked up the clipboard at my feet and flipped through it, looking at it as she walked back over to the right.
Oona Intemann is an 18-year-old sophomore at the George Washington University. She was an editor for her high school’s literary magazine and a writing coach for the school’s writing center. She lives on Long Island, New York, with her parents, sister, and exceedingly loving dog. She is currently working on a creative non-fiction piece. “Locked In” is her first published story.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
OI: I heard of a case of locked-in syndrome in the news and began reading up on it. It’s a really tragic and fascinating way our bodies respond to trauma, and I found out it’s actually been chronicled in many books, films, and television shows. It’s also prompted right-to-die appeals and other political campaigns.
The struggle patients with locked-in syndrome face is unimaginable. Some people have recovered from it and have been able to talk openly about it, but many have not. In most cases, family and friends are interviewed and can share how it has affected them and their loved ones. It got me thinking about what human interaction must be like if there’s no conventional interaction involved.
I got the idea for the characters at two o’clock one morning and jotted down a very rough beginning while sitting on my bedroom floor. By “beginning,” I really just mean opening scene—it wasn’t until I began developing the characters and their situations that I was able to think of a storyline.
PR: There are some well-known if not classic examples out there of novels and films that have bedbound main characters. Sorry, Wrong Number. Misery. Rear Window (okay, that’s a chair, not a bed). “Locked In” differs from those in that your narrator can’t speak and can’t move his body at all. What was it like to write with those kinds of limitations in place—not just for Greg, but for you?
OI: I think it definitely made for a much more interactive writing experience—I mean, writing is interactive, but writing this made it feel more vital. I had to be more conscious about everything. I couldn’t write any action or bit of dialogue without first making sure it would be plausible. Logistically speaking, so much is impossible for Greg because he essentially lives with blinders on. I had to rewrite a lot of descriptions in early drafts when I realized he wouldn’t be able to describe certain things because he wouldn’t be able to see those things.
I wrote “Locked In” when I was still in high school, and when I brought the story idea into school to mull over with a teacher, he assigned to me the coolest homework in the history of homework: lie down for 15 minutes and don’t move. Pretend you’re paralyzed and try to picture what it’s like—what you can see, what you can’t see, what you think about, etc. I probably lasted about five minutes before understanding that it was not only very difficult homework but also very difficult to be Greg. It helped me imagine the different ways Greg could experience his environment and, in a larger sense, it helped me figure out ways to personify a character that could do almost nothing a normal person could do.
PR: Did you ever have any moments of doubt that you could make it work? Ever think about changing your whole approach to the story?
OI: Almost constantly. At first, I didn’t even have the plot itself; I had vague ideas for the characters and their situations, but nowhere to bring them and nothing for them to do. My initial attempts at the story gave too much character background and not enough real substance: I was beginning it right when Greg wakes up and overhears his diagnosis. I realized that I needed a different entry point—one that wasn’t forcing information onto the page—and that’s when I decided to start in the middle of Greg’s experience.
Before that change, Lana had just been a character in his story, but I soon realized I wanted her to be the character in his story. Lana’s fearlessly friendly I’m-not-asking-you-I’m-telling-you attitude was perfectly complementary to Greg’s opposite personality. Once I started the story with her entrance I was able to figure out a clearer direction for both of them.
PR: Would you call “Locked In” a love story? A survival story? Or does it defy any convenient labels?
OI: I think “Locked In” is a human relationship story. Humans have an inherent and inescapable need for contact with their environment and the people in it. We are meant to connect with one another. For Greg, Lana is the connection he needs in his isolated world. The relationship he seeks with her isn’t purely a romantic one—he’s just latching onto the one thing that’s bringing him comfort. She’s curious and kind and exactly what he needs.
Lana empathizes with Greg because he shares with her the experience of facing a terrible diagnosis and the devastating impact it has on their lives and relationships. For Lana, Greg is her opportunity to let go. She’s going through the end of her life without someone to vent to, so Greg becomes an outlet for her. She needs to talk and the only thing Greg can do is listen.
PR: Lana has a very distinct character and voice. She’s wonderfully rendered; I felt like I was watching her as much as reading her. But you also manage to get a lot of Greg’s personality into the story by showing us what he notices, what sticks with him. That’s a particular challenge because, aside from blinking, he can’t interact with anyone. How would you describe his personality since the accident—and how does that differ from his personality before the accident?
OI: I feel like Greg would have been one of the “cool kids” at school before the accident, but maybe only “cool” for the solidarity of it. He had probably always suppressed a different personality outside of his façade for the group. Being alone in a hospital bed with infrequent visits by family and presumably nonexistent visits by friends has given him the chance to be with and think for himself. He’s motivated by schoolwork now, never thinks about his friends, and becomes obsessed with a girl he claims would not have been appreciated by his “crowd at school.” His infatuation with Lana probably shows the most how much he’s changed—and how he’s learning to step outside the boundaries of a clique and find what he truly values and loves in life.
PR: What are you working on now?
OI: It’s a little difficult to describe, but last year I began working on a memoir piece that also incorporates interviews and other research. It’s basically about how young adults cope differently in the wake of a tragic experience and how that experience can change their worldview. I interviewed friends, family, school psychologists, etc. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s a really exciting project for me.
There are also one or two short stories that I’ve started and want to finish, so one of these days I have to stop procrastinating and keep going with those, too.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
OI: “Read everything, write anything.” Read everything—good or bad, classic or crazy. When you read, you absorb information about how things are written; it’s like research for writers. You start to see patterns and recognize conventions. Then you practice it! “Write anything,” even if you know it’s terrible, even if you don’t know it’s terrible (more than half of the documents on my computer are trash that I would sooner set fire to than show someone). Writing in any form is still writing and, with practice, trash can become treasure.