Photo: Bill Miles
Crime novelists have long been fascinated by memory and amnesia, and in recent years gripping psychological thrillers in which heroes and heroines struggle to remember terrible crimes have become a staple of the bestseller lists.
Now, in her thriller All Is Not Forgotten, Wendy Walker has come up with a terrific high-concept idea that turns the genre completely on its head. Her debut novel has been getting rave reviews and the movie rights has already been snapped up by Hollywood star Reece Witherspoon.
In Wendy’s crime debut, Jenny’s parents will do anything to protect their 15-year-old daughter when she’s the victim of a brutal attack. Using experimental treatment, Jenny’s memories have been wiped so she is freed from trauma and able to move on with her life.
Except now Jenny lives with an unknown fear, a scar on her back that she cannot stop touching, and the knowledge of a violation that she cannot get justice for. Not to mention the fact that her father is obsessed with finding her attacker and her mother is in toxic denial.
With the help of a puppet-master psychiatrist – whose motives may not be benign – the only way Jenny can move on and identify her attacker is to go back into those memories. But even if it can be done, pulling at the threads of her suppressed experience threaten to destroy much more than the truth about her attack.
A novel about the painful choice of forgetting a destructive experience or seeking justice, Wendy came up with the idea when she read about an experimental PTSD treatment. She carried out extensive research into the latest studies in memory science and worked with a practising therapist to present Jenny’s traumatic journey.
In this fascinating intel, Wendy – a generous and engaging interviewee – discusses the article that launched her thriller, trauma therapy, our fascination with memory – and the way all our experiences shape us. And she talks about the leap of faith that led her to write the novel…
Tell us about Jenny…
Jenny Kramer is a bright, athletic teenage girl whose idyllic life takes an abrupt turn after she is assaulted at a local high school party. With little time to decide, her parents choose to give her a course of drugs that erase her memory of the attack. She awakes with no memory of the factual events, but this does not mitigate the emotional impact of this horrific crime. As time passes, she is tormented by the emotional memory that lives inside of her, and the knowledge that she has been violated by someone who could very well live among them in their small town. Her journey drives the plot of the novel.
All Is Not Forgotten is a terrific high-concept idea – how did you come up with it?
I read an article back in 2010 in the New York Times about memory science and the treatment of trauma to reduce PTSD. I thought that this type of treatment, if applied to survivors of crime, could create some incredibly difficult decisions and moral dilemmas. When I started to write the novel years later, the research into memory had exploded and scientists were marching toward the possibility of being able to target and alter (or even erase) factual memory, not just the emotional component. I decided to take the concept to this end – to go to the time and place when this possibility had been realized – and explore what that would mean for the survivor of a horrific crime. I think it raises some incredibly interesting issues.
What is it about suppressed memories, about forgotten horrors, that so fascinates us as readers?
Most of us have had the experience of someone from our past remembering a shared event differently, and insisting that her or she is right and we are wrong. It is very unsettling to consider the possibility that our memories are not static – that they are constantly being altered and are therefore less reliable than we thought. So much of who we are is about our past experiences and those experiences are held by these memories that we now know may not be as true as we believed. It raises questions that go to our very identity as individuals.
Additionally, the thought of being able to target and erase a memory is a fascinating question to ponder. What memories would you choose to erase? What would be lost if you did? This issue, I believe, goes to our very humanity. Are we just a sum total of the factual memories we carry in our minds? And if we can erase what we don’t like, what would the world be like? These questions, for me, are deeply profound.
You worked with a therapist to present the journey that many victims of violence go through – what did you learn about the way we cope with terrible trauma?
Traditionally, trauma therapy has involved talking about the event in a controlled, safe setting with a therapist many, many times until the event loses its power. In a sense, this is not much different from the therapies that are happening now which are based on an understanding of memory science – how memories are recalled and “refilled.” Patients are now given sedatives and other drugs when they recall the event so that when the recalled memory is refilled, the emotional component has been altered to be less traumatic. This is not much different from traditional talk therapy, though some therapists believe it is far more effective.
For traumas resulting from crime, treatment is more complicated. Added to the emotional reaction that took place during the event, survivors of crime also confront the knowledge of being violated, the loss of their bodily integrity and safety, trust, faith in humanity – the list goes on. These factors arise from far more than a factual recollection of an event, and we know from real world events that they exist even in survivors who cannot remember the crime occurring. We also know that participating in the justice process can be very healing for these survivors and this is yet another important consideration when considering memory altering therapies.
Your debut novel has already been snapped by movie-makers and has received amazing reviews – do you feel a pressure now to deliver an even better second book?
Of course! I have been writing for many years, juggling a household of kids, my job as an attorney, and this crazy dream of becoming a successful writer. It has been a long journey and I feel grateful to have the opportunity to have my work out in the world, being read by so many people. I take nothing for granted and intend to honor this opportunity by working as hard as I can to create a really great book worthy of people’s time.
How did you start writing?
I had taken time off from being an attorney to be home with my children, but it was hard not to be doing anything that would further myself professionally. I had never written before or studied writing but I always loved a good story and felt I had some to tell. So I started writing here and there and everywhere (even in the back of my minivan!) any chance I got. Eventually, I had two novels published and was retained to edit for a world-renowned series. I went back to practicing law, but still kept writing, waiting and hoping to find my voice and an audience that wanted to hear it! Last year, my agent encouraged me to switch genres so I could finally write this story, which I had been sitting on for years. I took a huge leap of faith, scaled back my workload for three months, and wrote All Is Not Forgotten.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That sometimes to be successful you have to be willing to set aside something that embodies your time, your heart and soul, even your hopes and dreams, and try something new. You have to listen to the people you have decided to trust to guide you. It was not easy for me to switch genres and write a psychological thriller. I had to close the door on a project I had worked on for two years, during every free moment I could find between my kids and my legal work. But I listened to my agent, opened my computer again, and wrote with blind passion for ten weeks until the book was done. I will never forget this experience and what it taught me about trust, perseverance, and faith.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
John Grisham because he revolutionized suspense novels and put the legal thriller permanently on the map. James Patterson for creating a new standard in the marketing of books with utter brilliance. And Dan Brown for his meticulous research and for creating a story that captivated the entire world. But, honestly, I have been meeting more and more writers, each with a different style, technique, philosophy and voice, and who stare down blank pages and somehow get beyond the self-doubt to keep going – they are my inspiration.
Give me some advice about writing…
First, keep writing. The more you write the better you will get. Don’t allow “writer’s block” to slow you down. Just get something on the page to move the plot along. You can always go back and revise. It’s so easy to get stuck, and there is no way around the self-doubt and anxiety that writers feel. The only way around is through. Second, take advice and be willing to make changes. Don’t get too attached to any character or any plot line. Sometimes other people just don’t get what’s in our heads and we have to be willing to accept that and move on. Finally, surround yourself with people you trust – to read for you and to represent you.
What’s next for you?
I am revising my second thriller about two teenage sisters who disappear one night under mysterious circumstances. Five years later, only one returns to tell the story of where they’ve been and to help the FBI and her sister. The novel is told in two narratives, one from the sister who has returned and one from the forensic psychologist who leads the search for the sister who did not make it out. It is incredibly fun because I have huge twist at the end and I can’t wait to see what readers think!
All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker is out now in hardback, published by HQ at £12.99.