Interview with ABQ Journal Reporter.
THE NEXT OSAMA
Review and interview by Donna Olmstead, freelance writer and reporter for The Albuquerque Journal (October 2010)
Placitas psychotherapist and writer Judith Acosta recently talked about her new novel, The Next Osama (2010). Judith says she wrote the psychological thriller to explore what happens to individuals in a culture dominated by fear. The book is set after Osama bin Laden has been eliminated, in the muck of a media-induced fear frenzy that still courses through major cities and rural towns.
“This is the story of what we think we see, faith in what we don’t see, and all the gray spaces between. It is the story of the media’s calculated use of terror–what it does to one small American family and what it can finally do to us all,” she says of the book.
Although Judith has been writing all of her adult life, this is her first published novel.
Why did you turn to fiction to write this story?
I don’t know whether I turned to fiction or it turned to me. I don’t think anyone in their right mind actually decides to become a creative writer. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever undertaken. But the origin of it was in my office where I see fear every day. And it occurred to me as I watched one woman struggling with a relentless and pervasive anxiety after 9/11 that the media actively perpetuated her anxiety. I started calling it viral fear a few years later because of how much of it I was seeing. It’s not the same as a proper and good fear. It’s a useless fear. Good fear is what motivates us to jump out of the way of an oncoming train or defend our homes when there is a real attack. Useless fear paralyzes us and in fact makes us more vulnerable.
Telling the story of viral fear and what it does to one small group of people in New York hopefully gives people a more intimate and emotional view of it.
Besides, stories are always the best way of communicating any message.
Why do you think it’s important?
It’s vital to our survival on so many levels—emotional, spiritual, physical. When fear grips us the way it does the people in The Next Osama, it makes us irrational. This isn’t to say that there aren’t real things to be afraid of. There are. And we should deal with them courageously and firmly. Viral fear is not real. It’s insidious and it puts us in a negative trance.
Y’know the color code they use at airports and government buildings since 9/11? How often do you even pay attention to it anymore? Do you know whether we’re at yellow or orange or red right now?
When you put pressure on your arm long enough it goes numb. It’s the same with fear. And it’s utilized by the media to garner ratings, not inform or prepare us.
How does the book relate to your therapy practice?
In some ways, it reflects it. Trauma and anxiety are what I know best. What happens in my office is only one part of treatment. Helping people to a new level of awareness so they know when they are being “infected” by viral fear and knowing how to resist it is the other part.
I come from an advertising background. I know what media does and how it’s used. I did it. Perhaps this is my penance. And that would be fine by me. But it’s desperately important for my patients—for everyone—to know how and when they are being manipulated.
Test it yourself. Do some calculated channel surfing. Make mental notes of how often advertisers are using fear (of aging, of illness, of catastrophe, of weight gain) to get you to buy something you really don’t need. It’s really astonishing. I remember doing it for an article I wrote and finally lost count. It was up in the hundreds. And that was just within the time I was able to sit there and stomach it.
What’s your favorite passage?
I’d have to say the last paragraph in the next to last chapter. It was very hard to write because of how poignant the character is who’s mistaken for the next Osama and how his greatest longing became the source of his deepest wound. We’re so fallen. All of us.
What was your writing process for The Next Osama?
Painful, beautiful, relentless, compulsive and very, very disciplined. I got up every day and I wrote whether I felt like it or not. I ate a lot of dark chocolate. I walked a lot, even when I was sitting down. My feet didn’t stop moving. I couldn’t stop thinking of the characters even when I was sleeping. I came to love them all—the good and the miserable.
One of the saddest things for me was writing the last line and knowing that in order for you to open the book, I had to close it on people I’d spent a couple of years with.
But as I say that, I’m thinking that writers are a bizarre lot. I really do. All that time having conversations with ourselves in our own minds. Yikes.
What do you do to combat the daily dose of fear around all of us?
Pray often and talk to my husband. Besides God, he’s my rock and he always knows how to bring me back to basics without dismissing me. I can be very fearful about a lot of things.
Also, I avoid those shows that do nothing but warn you uselessly about mega-tsunamis and mega-volcanoes or tell you the horsemen of the apocalypse are on the horizon because of Mayan predictions. I hate them. They really do make me afraid. If I watch even a little (masochistic curiosity?), I walk around afraid and useless until I snap out of it or my husband comes home, whichever is first.
When I’m smart I remember that it’s not in my hands, that God’s got it all handled and when it’s time to go Home, I will go. Basically, if you’ve got those things in mind, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. I guess, now that I’m thinking about it, faith is the great antidote to fear.
Are you working on any other books? What’s next?
There are a couple of books in the wings. They’re also about fear. But in vastly different ways. One’s a psychological thriller within NYPD where a cop and a psychiatrist are both “stalked” by the same fears. The other is a modern western romance where the cowboy rides a motorcycle and saves a band of wild horses in Wyoming. That one is pure emotional yahoo.