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Richmond’s Rachel McRady tackles dementia in debut novel

A portait of McRady
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News
Rachel McRady, author of Sun Seekers, is photographed on Tuesday, June 11, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

A 6-year-old narrates the story in Sun Seekers.

A 6-year-old girl dealing with her grandfather’s dementia narrates Sun Seekers, the debut novel from Richmond writer Rachel McRady.

The author will discuss her work at 11 a.m. July 27 at Twin Hickory Library in Henrico County.

Morning Edition host Phil Liles recently spoke with the writer about her approach to storytelling.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.


Phil Liles: Rachel, why have you written this novel, “Sun Seekers?” And is it from your experiences?

McRady: I wrote this story as a love letter to caregivers and to loved ones of people who have dementia and Alzheimer's. It's such an isolating disease for everyone involved, not just for the people suffering from it, but [for] those who — it's in their family, it's someone they care about. There's such an intense financial cost with that, and there's an intense emotional toll that that takes on every member of the family.

I just wanted people who were experiencing that to really feel seen. When I was going through it, I was in my 20s, and my grandfather was battling dementia, but no one else in my life had really experienced that before.

And unfortunately, as we know, if you haven't experienced it yet, you will likely experience it at some point in the future, because that is a disease that is impacting quite a few people. And dementia is kind of the blanket term for a variety of different forms of dementia and Alzheimer's.

I'm by no means a medical expert. I am just somebody who loved someone who had dementia. I had several grandparents who had dementia, actually. And I just wanted to make sure that people out there felt less alone — because it is such a painful way to watch someone go.

You grieve them before they're even gone.

I loved the style of your writing and how you built upon each character throughout the book. I liked how LeeAnn, the mother, told Gracie about the difficult time her grandfather was having, and explained to her how that was happening to her grandfather with the worm story.

Can you just read that paragraph in the book?

This is told from Gracie's perspective, and she says, “Grandfather's had the worm in his brain for two years now.

“That’s what mama says. Most days, the worm is sleeping, but it's always there. On the sleeping days, grandfather tells me he loves me. He brushes my hair back and tells me I'm the most marvelous girl in the whole wide world.”

LeeAnn, a single mother, who’s battling her own mental health struggles, presents the worm as this kind of vessel to explain dementia to Gracie, her daughter. And she says that when the sun is up, the worm is asleep. And so, grandfather is pleasant. And when the sun goes down, the worm wakes up and he makes grandfather sick.

That is a way of explaining Sundown Syndrome to Gracie. I wanted to write a story that talked about how those diseases impact a family while also looking at it [through] a lighter lens.

Gracie was my way in with that. She kind of views his dementia as a problem that she needs to solve. She's never felt hopeless. She doesn't even understand the concept of hopelessness. So, that was just very therapeutic for me to write this story from her perspective.

I was grappling with my own sadness over my grandfather's declining state and how this disease had impacted him, and the idea that we go through this life trying to build a family — have these accomplishments and then this was the kind of the finish line, and that really bothered me — that that would be the situation for him.

So, I wanted to kind of rewrite that for him.

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Phil Liles is VPM's morning news host.
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