Monday, August 13, 2012

Emily Colin talks about The Memory Thief, dyslexia, green olives and more. Plus, comment on this post and you could win a copy of The Memory Thief

In every UCLA writing class I teach online, there are always one or two (or sometimes 5 or 6 if I am really lucky) writers who knock me out at the first sentence. Emily Colin  was one of them. She was just starting The Memory Thief in my class, but the book was already so wondrously strange, beautifully written, and compelling, that I knew she had something extraordinary on her hands, and I knew how lucky I was to be able to work with her. Now, that novel is coming out (pre-order it now. Really. Trust me on this) and I'm honored to have Emily here. (Don't forget to take a gander at Emily's book trailer, too. 

AND, the first two people to comment on this post will receive a copy of THE MEMORY THIEF. Please send me your email address if you are those lucky people! (

What's so thrillingly satisfying for me is to see something bud and then bloom into this extraordinary novel. I first saw this novel when you were in my UCLA class, and truthfully, I knew from the first sentence, that you had something remarkable. What about you--do you suffer self-doubt? That you worry about this novel? 

 Before I started writing THE MEMORY THIEF, I’d spent years editing other people’s work—not to mention doing a lot of professional writing (grants, marketing, websites, magazine articles, you name it). But I hadn’t pursued my own creative endeavors in a long time. When I sat down to work on this book, I gave myself a year to finish it—and I just started writing, without design, reason or many organizational skills. I truly had no idea what I was doing, and to discover that you loved the book, even in its rough and early stages, was a welcome revelation. For sure, I worried if I’d wind up with anything readable, much less marketable. But—much like Maddie—I made the decision to have faith, took a deep breath, and jumped.

The scenes about mountain climbing are so real, that they are alternately terrifying and exhilarating. Can you talk about the research?

I do not like heights. Do not like them, Sam I am. Still, the concept of mountain climbing grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. It was what this book was about—risk taking, pushing through limits—and so I set out to overcome my natural aversion. I started with armchair research—books, YouTube videos, blogs. Then I talked a friend into taking me to her home state of Colorado, where I had the good fortune to encounter three off-duty Outward Bound instructors who let me hang around with them all day, taking pictures, asking questions and generally making a nuisance of myself. At the time, there was a climbing gym in Wilmington, NC, where I live, and I set up shop there, quizzing anyone who would put up with it. I even signed my son up for climbing lessons once a week, and went with him each time, asking more questions and watching him learn. In the meantime, I went back to Colorado on my own, staking out a table in the Boulder Bookstore and writing for hours—just getting to know the area, absorbing the culture. And when I’d done everything I could on my own, I went to the owner of the climbing gym, Walter Kiesling, and asked him if he’d be kind enough to review the mountain climbing scenes. Walter made some incredibly helpful suggestions—complete with sketches, in fact!—that helped me immeasurably. And I was gratified to hear him say that, when he read the scene where Aidan explains to Maddie why he loves climbing so much, he felt as if he was reading about himself—his own motivations and desires. Any errors that remain are, of course, my own.

There's something otherworldly about this novel, almost mystical. Did you feel that as you were writing the novel, or did it take you by surprise?

From the very beginning, the writing process for THE MEMORY THIEF was surrounded by a remarkable atmosphere of coincidence—or fate, if that suits you better. In the very beginning, when I had about five words on the page, I was walking to a neighborhood park with my four-year-old, thinking, gosh, I really need to find someone who’s gone mountain climbing in South America. And then I got to the park and met a guy who’d done just that, and in fact, months later, he would go on to become the climbing consultant for my book—the guy who checked over all the scenes to make sure I hadn’t screwed up too badly. The whole time I was working on the book, stuff like that kept happening. It was eerie, really.

That said, the otherworldly, mystical aspect of the book itself was with me from the very first word. In some ways, it’s what kept my attention—the sense that anything was possible, and that the seams of reality had been stretched to accommodate my imagination. Originally, the first sentence of THE MEMORY THIEF was this: ‘The dream is always the same.’ In the inevitable onslaught of edits that followed, that sentence was lost…but the feel of navigating a dreamlike landscape never left me, and I think in many ways it defines the finished book.

So, if you had to tell new writers a few things to be aware of in writing a first novel, the pitfalls and the exhilarations, what would you say?

Wow. Well, first of all, I’d say—don’t give up. The creative process is just the beginning—finding an agent, a publisher and all the rest of it is hard work, and you’ve got to be willing to commit to it if you’re serious about the publication process. Develop a thick skin, and don’t take things personally. Remember that sometimes rejection has nothing to do with the quality of your work—your novel just might not be right for them, whoever they might be.

On the flip side, be open-minded! There’s a thin bright line between objective and subjective criticism, and if enough people critique the same aspect of your book, you just might want to consider revisions. Six months into my search for an agent—being the obsessive person I am, I had a spreadsheet with over 100 candidates, all alphabetically organized with notes about each person’s interests and our communication to date—I did a complete and total rewrite of the book. It was exhausting, and exasperating, and frustrating, too, because I didn’t know whether my decision to restructure the book would make a difference. But it did, and shortly thereafter, I found my wonderful and indefatigable agent, the lovely Felicia Eth.

In the exhilaration department … I’m thrilled that THE MEMORY THIEF found a home, and that on August 21st, the world will get to meet my imaginary friends. Of course, I’m also terrified that no one will like them, in the way that you feel when you send your child off to kindergarten—what if I’ve created a freak of nature? What if I’ve raised a science experiment that’s only fit to socialize with the classroom’s pet iguana? Neurotic person that I am, I feel a great deal of vicarious social anxiety for Maddie, Aidan and company—even though, as I keep reminding myself, they are not actually real. And on top of it all, I feel indescribably, incomparably lucky.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Good question. Hmmmm. Travel, because my next book is, in part, about an adventure cinematographer whose psychological aberrations—and inability to get close to anyone—keep him constantly on the move. Researching his avocation has reignited my desire to visit far-flung places … or maybe that desire inspired his character in the first place. It’s hard to say…
I’m also currently obsessed with dyslexia, because Lucas is dyslexic and we are trying to make second grade as painless as possible for him. As someone who sees the world through the prism of language, it’s been enlightening—and challenging—to have a child who finds reading and writing to be the ultimate exercise in frustration. I’m determined to ensure that he loves literature all the same, and so we listen to a lot of audiobooks. Right now we are finishing up The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis, and then it’s on to The Last Battle.
Other obsessions? Green olives, Manchego cheese, good red wine, and a freshly baked baguette. My fruitless search for a new pair of black boots. The interminable wait for the next book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, because I’m hooked. And the countdown to the season finale of Steven Spielberg’s Falling Skies, since deep down, I’m a sci-fi junkie. I hardly watch any television, but right now Sunday nights are when I indulge: Falling Skies, True Blood, and The Newsroom, all in a neat little row. Come on—aliens, vampires, werewolves, a telepath with fairy heritage, and the ongoing, equally absurd drama of breaking news. It doesn’t get much better than that.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Whether my next book is a sequel to THE MEMORY THIEF. And my answer: To some extent, it is. You’ll see Maddie, J.C. and Gabe again, but they aren’t the focus of the story this time around. Book 2 features a whole new cast of characters, with an impressive collection of secrets that they guard with their lives—in one case, quite literally. Alas, it has no title yet. I’m taking suggestions!


Stefanie said...

Great interview! It always adds a richness to an interview when the interviewer and interviewee have a past of knowing each other. Thank you for sharing!

Romalyn said...

As always, I appreciate your interviews! Reading them is a great way to start a writing day ... and, of course, I love that she took class from you at UCLA.

mo said...

Love that Emily started this "...without design, reason or many organizational skills" with no real idea what she was doing but was able to grasp her vision and proceed with its research in an incredibly focused and courageous way. Good for her and as a first time work-in-progress novelist,I learned something from the interview. Thanks. Best wishes, Emily, and I look forward to reading The Memory Thief.

Debby said...

I work at Pomegranate Books, the best indie bookstore in Emily's city, Wilmington, NC. She gave us an advance copy of The Memory Thief last month and I devoured it in about three sittings! It does grab you from the very beginning and never lets go. I LOVE this book and will be proud to handsell it, starting next week! I'm sure this book will be a big hit. Looking forward to the next one, Emily!

David Gardner said...

Thanks for an inspiring interview! Reading about Emily's methods of research was so helpful, and comforting to know she stepped out on faith for much of this. Looking forward to reading "Memory Thief"!

swartbacksliders said...

Congratulations Emily on you book.
alan swart

Unknown said...

Thanks to everyone for their kind and insightful comments--and thanks, Caroline, for having me!

Unknown said...

Emily has been a great role model in our community, and it is so neat to learn more about her. Congrats and good luck to you Emily!