The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr
When I started writing The One Memory of Flora Banks I was supposed to be working on something entirely different. My most recent novel, a psychological thriller called The Sleeper, had sold reasonably well and I was trying to write something similar. I’d been happily writing psychological thrillers, for Headline, for years. In fact I’d written twelve of them.
However, the book in my head was different. It was set in the Arctic, in the summer when it never gets dark, where the time of day feels arbitrary and your body never really wants to sleep. It was a book about being brave, about facing the impossible and doing it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it – at the same time as I tried to plot out the sensible book that I didn’t, in the end, write at all.
I started reading books by Oliver Sacks, and medical papers about memory. The brain is an amazing thing, capable of extraordinary feats. It is also fragile and precious; the human control center, a gland buzzing with electricity that contains all our thoughts and everything we are. It doesn’t take much to happen to it for everything to change, and it could happen to any one of us, at any time. Flora, the girl with no short term memory, began to take shape.
When I began to research the Arctic I discovered that, strangely enough, the place I had been imagining really existed. It was Svalbard, an archipelago to the far north of Norway, a place with extremes of summer and winter, sitting deep in the Arctic, with more polar bears than people.
On impulse, I booked a trip there. I went alone and from the moment I stepped off the plane (the only person arriving in a cotton dress and denim jacket: everyone else seemed to have got changed into serious Arctic clothing en route) I knew I was somewhere magical. I spent a week marvelling at the light nights, the snow, the clean air, the astonishing beauty of it all. I hardly spoke to another person. I had no money so I filled up on the guesthouse breakfast each morning and wandered around looking at things for hours and hours, then went back to my little room and wrote it all down. I would wake at three in the morning and look out of the window at the sun reflecting off the snow. The book started to come together. Svalbard was the most inspiring place I had ever visited. I knew Flora needed to be there, in the snow, in the sunshine, on a mission.
To get from that point to publication was not remotely straightforward. As soon as I had written a chunk of the book, I realised that it had to be YA, unlike anything else I’d written. I loved the idea of writing for young adults, and the book flowed like nothing I’d ever done before, but the change of focus meant looking for a new publisher. I discovered that writing a protagonist with anterograde amnesia is very difficult, because she can never look back at anything. Everything is in the present tense. Every time I thought I had finished the book it turned out it needed a huge amount more work. In many ways Flora is the ultimate unreliable narrator: because the book is told entirely from her point of view the reader can never know what is going on that she doesn’t know about, or has forgotten. Flora has no option but to believe what people tell her and, while I loved writing that, it meant that every word had to be considered and reconsidered and then considered again.
I ran out of money and maxed out all my credit cards. I was freelancing as much as I could, writing and teaching writing, but everything started to spin out of control. Still, I worked at the book and in the end I finished it, and then I finished it again, and again, and finally it was actually ready to send to publishers. My agent, Lauren, who had been a massive support all the way, sent it out and I tried not to think about it while refreshing my emails constantly.
A week later my life turned upside down because more than one publisher was interested. Lauren and I spent a day going around London meeting editors; the day culminated with a meeting at Penguin that ended with them making a pre-emptive offer. The book that had been my labour of love was now, it seemed, going to be published. I ran for the last train home to Cornwall and, by the time I reached the first stop, we had a deal.
And now it’s in the shops. Publication brings with it all sorts of stresses but they’re balanced by the astonishing fact that you are being paid to write something and that real people are reading it. I’ve written a second YA book too, and am working on the one after that.
Next week I’m heading back to the Arctic to see what it’s like in winter, so perhaps there will be another book in that. Who knows?
(c) Emily Barr
About The One Memory of Flora Banks
How do you know who to trust when you can’t even trust yourself?
I look at my hands. One of them says ‘FLORA be brave’.
Flora has anterograde amnesia. She can’t remember anything day-to-day: the joke her friend made, the instructions her parents gave her, how old she is.
Then she kisses someone she shouldn’t – and the next day she remembers it.
It’s the first time she’s remembered anything since she was ten.
But the boy is gone – she thinks he’s moved to the arctic.
Could he somehow be the key to unlocking her memory?
Emily Barr worked as a journalist in London but always hankered after a quiet room and a book to write. She went travelling for a year, which gave her an idea for a novel set in the world of backpackers in Asia. This became BACKPACK, an adult thriller which won the WH Smith New Talent Award, and she has since written eleven more adult novels published in the UK and around the world. THE ONE MEMORY OF FLORA BANKS is her first novel for young adults. She lives in Cornwall with her partner and their children.