‘I reckon I could write a speculative fiction novel.’
…Was what I said.
I was walking home from the shop with my partner. It was autumn, maybe. I think there were leaves on the ground, though those could have been from another walk memory that I’ve merged with this one.
I don’t remember what prompted me to make my grandiose statement.
‘I’m sure you could,’ said my partner. He’s been with me twenty years, and is used to grandiose statements.
And, as it turned out, I did.
I know that’s not really an answer.
The truth is, when people ask (and they always do) where I got the idea for my book. I don’t actually know. I can only retrofit an explanation. Like when people guess at what Stonehenge was for. The subconscious is as mysterious a place as prehistory.
I do know what I’d been thinking about – or more specifically, what I was consuming – in the lead up to my grandiose statement.
At that time my fiction diet included a lot of sci-fi. More specifically, the kind of sci-fi that’s often called speculative, focusing on characters and relationships rather than intergalactic warfare. Call me self-absorbed, but sci fi is mainly of interest to me in so far as it relates to me. Ie. a ‘what if’ scenario, affecting real people, living in a recognisable world. The movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a huge inspiration here, as was Black Mirror, as well as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
I was also enjoying polyphonic films and novels: Robert Altman, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Nicola Barker. Polyphony is when a piece of music or art is formed of several independent melodies, or voices. From multiple threads an immersive atmosphere emerges, more than the sum of its parts. When I read A Visit From The Goon Squad I was particularly awed by this apparent magic – and what writer doesn’t quickly go from ‘how on earth did she do that’ to ‘…maybe I could do something like that’?
Finally, I’d been reading Tessa Hadley and Elizabeth Strout. What delighted me particularly about their writing was its observational nature: the way they looked closely at their subjects, yet without moral judgement. Having this kind of vision is easier said than done. Our brains are designed to sum up, to pick sides, to label something right, wrong, good or bad, to save precious cognitive energy. And so I wanted my own novel to be an exploration rather than a lesson. It looks at how technology plays out in people’s lives, and I hope it refrains from jumping to moral conclusions about either the tech or the people.
Back to my grandiose statement.
My partner was saying ‘I’m sure you could.’
‘I do have an idea,’ I said. ‘There would be several different characters, and they all find out they once had a memory removed but they don’t know what it is. Then they have to decide if they want it back.’
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Heh. I really like that.’
By the time we’d reached our front door, I’d laid out pretty much all of the novel as it currently stands, and my partner was very enthusiastic. He thought it was better than a book – it might even be good enough to be on TV.
Now. I know what you’re thinking. I can hear your eye roll. For me to say ‘the idea just came to me in five minutes’ is extremely annoying. Any writer who hears it takes an immediate dislike to me, quite rightly.
But don’t worry, the laws of creative physics haven’t made an exception for me. All books require lot of effort and every writer has to pay. For every hour I saved at the ‘idea having’ stage, I probably spent a month later on, researching, constructing, writing, reworking, crying, reworking again.
The research was the first hurdle. I thought I was in uncharted territory, science-wise. I didn’t realise just how close we are in real life to actually deleting memories in humans. I ended up having to pore over a lot of studies to make sure that I was still writing a speculative fiction novel and not, er, a novel.
Another difficulty was my multi-person structure. The stories are largely separate and not all the characters meet, but they are on the same timeline. I’ve still got the grubby piece of A4 covered in crossings-out and tearstains on which I worked out the timings. It didn’t help that as it took over four years to write the book, my alternate present-day kept getting away from me.
There were also tonal challenges with the polyphony. Noor was originally a bad-tempered journalist investigating organised crime – but a few early readers pointed out that this thrilleresque strand jarred with the more thoughtful, small-scale stories. I had an idea early on that I would fix this by writing every character in a different genre style (effectively out-Cloud Atlasing Cloud Atlas) before the genre boundaries disappeared in the finale – and presumably so did the book, up its own bottom. But in the end I listened to readers who said they wanted a point of view from inside the clinic, and Noor became a bad-tempered psychologist instead.
And then there was the size. I had so much science to put in, after all, and so many voices, that in the end the book got so big that whenever I opened the file my ancient Macbook crashed.
I’d like to say I rose to all these challenges and kept faith. But that’s not true. I lost confidence and started to hate the book. I took any excuse to put off writing. I started planning a historical book. And yet: I kept going back to this one. When I wasn’t writing it I was thinking about it, and when I was writing it I wanted out. Even after I’d found my agent, which should have been reassuring, I still had a Pavlovian aversion to the book. We moved house and I managed to stretch the renovations out for months so I wouldn’t have to look at my laptop.
Having said that, I do think the periods of time I spent away from it were helpful, in that I’d forgotten most of it and so could look at it with fresh eyes. And I was surprised to find that… I liked it. I found a publisher, I got down to edits, I cut it by a third (you’re welcome!), and: here it is.
(c) Jo Harkin
About Tell Me An Ending:
Across the world, thousands of people are shocked to receive an email telling them that they once chose to have a traumatic memory removed. Now they are being given the chance to get that memory back.
For Mei, William, Oscar and Finn there is a piece missing, but they’re not sure what. And each of them must decide if the truth is worth the pain, or better left unknown.
For Noor, who works at the memory clinic Nepenthe, the process of reinstating their patients’ memories begins to shake the moral foundations of her world. As she delves deeper into the programme, she will have to risk everything to uncover the true human cost of this miraculous technology.
An exploration of secrets, grief, identity and belonging – of the stories we tell ourselves, and come to rely on, Tell Me An Ending is a sharp, dark and devastating novel about the power and danger of memory.
Order your copy online here.