Please welcome Alison Gaylin, author of the new hit series featuring Brenna Spector, a woman who forgets nothing!
and she was
NMR: Let’s begin by describing the affliction your main character has; what can you tell us about that?
AG: Hyperthymestic Syndrome, or hypthymesia, is perfect autobiographical memory. The condition is usually triggered by a traumatic event, and it basically means that you can recall every day of your life since its onset, with all five senses, from start to finish. I first heard about it a few years ago in a magazine article, and I found it so interesting that I wound up doing more research and building a character around it.
NMR: This is a
fascinating affliction that affects so very few, and such a wonderful idea of
which to center a character around, but what was it that enticed you to create
this particular syndrome for your main character?
AG: When I read about this affliction, it made me think about the role that memory plays in our lives—and how important it is, not just to be able to remember, but to be able to forget. I think it’s really comforting that our memories dull with time. It helps us gain perspective, keep looking ahead and move on. And the idea of someone who doesn’t have the luxury of forgetting – for whom the past is a constant companion – I find that kind of tragic and compelling.
NMR: Remembering everything would be a nightmare, how does Brenna deal with this, or does she?
AG: I’ve heard that in most of the real cases of hyperthymestic syndrome, there is also a form of OCD – so they’re able to compartmentalize and organize their memories. I’m so far from OCD myself that I couldn’t see writing Brenna that way, so I had her develop ways to cut the memories short. She’ll recite something she’s memorized, like the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer in her head (though on occasion she does it aloud) , or she might do something physical – bite her lip or dig her nails into her palms to sort of hurt herself back into the present.
NMR: (not sure if you might have explained this above) Compartmentalizing is something we all do, but what, if anything, is Brenna giving up by doing that in order to save her sanity?
AG: Well, I’d think it might be kind of nice to escape into memories if they are pleasurable ones, but she can’t allow herself to do that because she needs to stay focused. So in a way, she’s depriving herself most of the time.
NMR: As you are probably aware, there is a TV show with a character much like yours; however, whereas the TV character seems to have a rather breezy attitude with her never forgotten memories, your character often finds the memories intrusive on her present life, and at times debilitating. Is this characterization simply because you’ve done more research on the subject, or perhaps because you wanted to put it into a more honest light?
AG: I think it’s just a matter of what I find most interesting about the condition. In one of the case studies I read, someone with hyperthymesia compared it to a movie playing constantly in her head. That hurt my brain just thinking about it! So of course I wanted to try to capture that feeling in writing. I didn’t find out about the TV show until it debuted last fall, and I haven’t really watched it because I don’t want to unconsciously rip it off, but maybe having a character who’s less tortured by the memories works better for the plots they are creating.
NMR: As one could imagine, forming relationships would be a problem as one remembers everything, then and now. Would be hard to argue with “I didn’t say that.” At the same time, it would be hard not to compare the good memories from the past with what is new; is Brenna going to be capable of entering into a new love relationship? (Would you rather we just wait and read the next outing?)
AG: I’d love for you to read the next outing! Interestingly, in the first draft of this book, Brenna and Nick got a lot closer than in the finished version. But it felt forced to me so I pulled them back. Knowing that you will remember every single moment of a relationship ten, twenty years from now, whether the relationship lasts or not is pretty scary. Having been through this already with her ex-husband – not to mention every boyfriend, fling and/or date she’s ever had – Brenna is very reticent about getting involved with someone again. Yet at the same time, she’s a grown woman with a pulse, and she gets lonely. So she’s torn.
NMR: While this is in itself an amazing suspense thriller, it excels as a character study. Which do you personally want readers to focus on - the story or the characters?
AG: Thank you so much! I find it very gratifying when people connect with my characters. But I also like to tell a good story. Either way, as long as people are enjoying the books, I am very happy.
NMR: Which come first while writing – the new mystery to be solved, or the character?
AG: It tends to be the character, I think. I think of a character, with a certain obsession or need or something they are trying to hide. And then I build a plot to go around that.
NMR: What is the most difficult part of writing about this character?
AG: The timeline! Since I don’t have a perfect memory, I really have difficulty keeping all the dates straight, and I’m dealing with multiple mysteries in the series – whatever is going on at present, what happened twenty-eight years ago, when Brenna’s sister disappeared, and sometimes another mystery, in the more recent past. In AND SHE WAS it’s six-year-old Iris Neff’s disappearance eleven years ago. Brenna would remember exactly what happened on each date during each of these time periods, which really strains my brain. Sometimes, I think, “Why did I decide to write a character with perfect memory again?”
NMR: What do you enjoy most about writing a series with the same character?
AG: You don’t have to answer everything about her in each book. It’s like having a good friend, who you keep getting to know better and better.
NMR: This is honestly one of the most creative and exciting characters I’ve encountered….are you really going to stop at only 3 books?
AG: Thank you! Time will tell, I guess. But I’d love to keep going with Brenna. She’s a lot of fun to write.
NMR: Well, thank you Alison, can’t wait to read the next!
For the review of Gaylin's new book and she was
Alison Gaylin is the author of the Edgar-nominated thriller HIDE YOUR EYES, as well as its sequel YOU KILL ME and the standalones TRASHED and HEARTLESS (all from NAL/Penguin). AND SHE WAS – the first in a new series featuring Brenna Spector, a missing persons investigator with perfect memory -- is out now from Harper Collins. A graduate of Northwestern University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter.
For more info on Alison Gaylin visit her website at: www.alisongaylin.com