Try to imagine your life without touch. No hugs or kisses (or sex), but also no brushing hands with the cashier as you pay for your deli sandwich, no handshakes at business meetings, no shoulder rubs with strangers in a packed MARTA train. In her new book, Close Enough to Touch, metro Atlanta novelist Colleen Oakley considers the practical and emotional ramifications of such a life. We recently chatted with Oakley about her inspiration for the book.
This story revolves around a woman, Jubilee Jenkins, with an extremely unusual medical condition—she’s allergic to human touch. Was it based on a real condition?
Before I was a novelist, I was a health journalist, and I’ve written a few articles about allergies. I knew that allergies—food allergies, environmental allergies—are increasing at an exponential rate. These days, everybody knows somebody who has some kind of severe allergy. For me, it was my nephew and my niece, who both have very severe, life-threatening food allergies.
I knew I wanted to incorporate allergies into the book, but—of course, as a fiction writer—I had to take it a step further. So I started researching really bizarre allergies, and there are some crazy ones out there. I read about a woman who became pregnant and developed an allergy to water. She couldn’t even take a shower because her skin would swell up with hives. I found a woman who is allergic to technology. It sounds strange, but she can’t be around computers—can’t even have one in her house—and can’t use a cell phone because she’s allergic to the radiowaves that they emit. And there are people who are allergic to the sun and have to stay indoors all the time.
I was doing all this research, and I was struck with a thought, What if you were allergic to other people? I reached out to a lot of allergists to help me create the theoretical genetic reason that she would have this affliction and come up with the science behind it.
Being allergic to people might sound a little silly at first, but it’s clear that it has made a deep emotional imprint on this character.
When I started thinking about what it would be like if you truly couldn’t touch people, I realized how hard it would be. First, just to think about how many people you touch every day, often without even thinking about it. The book is also a love story, and it was a challenge to consider how you could possibly fall in love with somebody without being able to physically touch them.
The book also touches on how Jubilee’s condition affects her as a kid.
Being a mom myself, the idea that you can’t touch your children—when touch is how you bond with them and show your love—it made me consider how that would affect the way your kids would turn out. And the way that it would affect a mother’s relationship with her child.
Your last book, Before I Go, also had a medical backdrop—the main character was dealing with metastatic cancer. Is this a theme that you’ve chosen purposefully?
I think because of my background doing a lot of health and medical reporting, I’m one of those types of people who loves poring through studies and learning about conditions and how doctors and patients are dealing with these issues. It naturally finds its way into my books. I don’t go out seeking it, but those are just the ideas that I’m drawn to.
How do you think that people who have other kinds of life-threatening allergies will see the book?
I hope that they will read this and find something familiar in it and relate in a way. Watching my sister with her two kids gave me a different perspective on allergies. The burden of responsibility as a parent is already really high, but when your kids have food allergies, it is a constant 24/7 level of vigilance. It’s already terrifying to let your kids out into the world, but knowing that something as little as a peanut or an egg could end their life, and you’re the sole person responsible for that, is really heavy. I made sure that my sister read every scene. Even though the affliction that Jubilee has is not real, I wanted it to be as true to life as possible.
Foxtale Book Shoppe hosts a launch party for Oakley’s book on March 7 at Room & Board Furniture, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
She will also be reading and signing books on March 13 at the Decatur Library from 7:15 p.m. to 9 p.m. and on April 29 at Foxtale Book Shoppe at 2 p.m.