Fate, Free Will and Celebrity Crushes by Sarah Zachrich Jeng

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[Note from Frolic: Today, we welcome author Sarah Zachrich Jeng to the site. She’s talking all things fate, free will and more. Take it away, Sarah!]

In junior high, I was mildly obsessed with the movie Terminator 2. This may or may not have been because of then-14-year-old star Edward Furlong’s swoopy hair and YA-hero-worthy brooding (it was). However, in addition to taping his cut-out picture on my bedroom wall next to Joey McIntyre’s, I managed to glean one of the film’s main themes: the future is not set in stone. Even if we think we know what’s going to happen, we can always do something to change it.

My celebrity crush faded, and I haven’t experienced most of the other properties in the Terminator universe, but that idea stuck with me. No fate but what we make—it’s a powerful concept. It suggests we are in control of our own futures, if we have the wisdom to make the right decisions. But what if we’re not always in control? When I started writing my debut novel, The Other Me, I knew very little about it except for the main premise: a woman’s fate is altered, suddenly and inexplicably, by forces unknown to her. I wanted the book to be about choices: who gets to make them, and who has them taken away. Whose stories and ambitions are centered, and whose become the collateral damage of other people’s wish fulfillment. 

In T2, Furlong plays John Connor, who (for some reason, possibly the hair) is the one person who can save humanity from being annihilated by time-traveling androids in a future nuclear dystopia. In my novel, main character Kelly Holter’s objective is more personal, and more nebulous. She has been plucked from her life as a struggling artist and set down in a completely different situation. She is the only one who seems to remember that she wasn’t always a work-from-home wife who settled down near her hometown with Eric (whom she knows as her high school sweetheart-turned-husband in one reality, and nothing more than an acquaintance in the other). She has no clue how or why the change occurred and no clear way forward—as far as she knows, all this might be in her imagination—but she refuses to settle into her current circumstances without questioning what brought her there.

As she works to uncover the forces behind the switch, she comes face to face with the results of her supposed choices and the choices of others. Her brother, whom she remembers as an irresponsible manchild, is now a marginally more grown-up single dad. Her friend from high school, who always dated more for status than feelings, is a stay-at-home mom with an emotionally distant husband. And Kelly’s own life has been shaped by decisions she made as a teenager: whether to date Eric, and whether or not to go to art school. 

We all have these turning points, crossroads that divide our lives into Before and After. Sometimes they occur early in life, other times when we’re more mature and our personalities already formed. But the further we progress down the left fork of the path, the more impossible it becomes to jump to the results of having veered right. A single choice can affect our job prospects, who we associate with, and the daily activities and habits we engage in; these external indicators in turn influence the way we think and feel, and the essence of who we are as humans. We’re no longer quite the same people who could have turned right, no matter how we might try to remain so.

Of course, agency is often an illusion. Sometimes the events that have the greatest impacts on our lives are completely beyond our control. That’s why I committed the cardinal sin of taking some of my main character’s agency away, and why I injected purposeful chaos into The Other Me. Kelly sees unsettling ripples in reality that make it impossible for her to simply accept her new life, even if she wanted to. Not only do her memories seem to change from day to day, but she notices more tangible changes in her hairstyle, tattoos, even characters winking in and out of existence. These ripples make it clear that there’s something larger at stake here. Some of them have plot-related explanations, but a few simply represent the chaotic nature of the universe (or the multiverse, if you go in for that sort of thing). 

Like the characters in Terminator 2, though unfortunately without the help of Linda Hamilton or Arnold Swarzenegger, Kelly eventually takes control of her fate and forges a new path through her life despite the unknowability of the future. None of us knows what will happen to us, yet we’d be paralyzed if we allow ourselves to dwell on that. Some people find comfort in believing that everything happens for a reason, even if it’s not one they’re privy to. That’s one way of embracing the uncertainty inherent in life, and making that uncertainty a source of hope rather than fear.

About the Author:

Sarah Zachrich Jeng grew up in Michigan and always had a flair for the morbid and mysterious (for her dad’s thirty-fifth birthday, she wrote a story entitled “The Man Who Died at 35”). She had a brief career as an aspiring rock star before she came to her senses and went back to school to become a web developer. Sarah lives in Florida with her family and an extremely hyper rescue dog. THE OTHER ME is her first novel.

The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng, out now!

Two lives. The one you wanted. The one that wanted you.
Her birthday should be like any other night.

One minute Kelly’s a free-spirited artist in Chicago going to her best friend’s art show. The next, she opens a door and mysteriously emerges in her Michigan hometown. Suddenly her life is unrecognizable: She’s got twelve years of the wrong memories in her head and she’s married to Eric, a man she barely knew in high school.

Racing to get back to her old life, Kelly’s search leads only to more questions. In this life, she loves Eric and wants to trust him, but everything she discovers about him—including a connection to a mysterious tech startup—tells her she shouldn’t. And strange things keep happening. The tattoos she had when she was an artist briefly reappear on her skin, she remembers fights with Eric that he says never happened, and her relationships with loved ones both new and familiar seem to change without warning.

But the closer Kelly gets to putting the pieces together, the more her reality seems to shift. And if she can’t figure out what happened on her birthday, the next change could cost her everything…

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