The complications of a perfect memory
A series protagonist can almost feel like family to a diehard suspense fan, so it’s exciting when an author introduces a new character. In And She Was, readers meet Brenna Spector, a missing persons investigator with an unusual ability: Brenna has Hyperthymestic Syndrome, a rare, real-life condition that causes a person to have a perfect autobiographical memory. Brenna can precisely remember every detail from her life with all of her senses—a disorder that kicked in when she was a child and her little sister disappeared.
In And She Was, the first book in a new series, Brenna is called to investigate the disappearance of Carol Wentz, an adult. Carol’s case is connected with the disappearance of a young girl, Iris, that happened years before—and with Brenna’s own painful history. This fast-paced story includes flashbacks that highlight Brenna’s incredible memory, a fascinating characteristic that inspired BookPage to get in touch with author Alison Gaylin. Here, Gaylin talks about her discovery of this unusual medical condition—and whether it’s a blessing or a curse to unavoidably remember everything.
How did you learn about Hyperthymestic Syndrome, and why do you find it fascinating?
I read a magazine article on someone who had Hyperthymestic Syndrome, and I was amazed. I went online and found some medical journal articles about it, and learned that the first case had been diagnosed in 2006 (at most a year before I’d seen the article)—and that there were only a handful of known cases in the world. Having a pretty good memory myself, my first response was, “That must be awful!” I honestly think that the ability to forget—to let the past fade into soft focus and recede in your mind—is one of the great tools of survival. How can you forgive and forget if you can’t forget? How can you move on at all, if the past is just as clear and visceral as the present? How can you truly be with the people around you, if your mind is full of everyone who is no longer in your life?
What was the most surprising thing you learned about this condition?
How can you forgive and forget if you can’t forget?
The woman in the case study I read compared the syndrome to a movie playing constantly in her head. That’s what I found the most surprising about the condition—and also one of the biggest challenges as a writer: the lack of control over memories and the past constantly intruding on the present.
Do you think the ability to remember every moment from your life is something to covet—or fear?
I think it’s both. Remembering painful experiences in perfect detail would be very hard on the emotions. But by the same token, if I were to be able to relive certain days from my daughter’s early childhood, for example—or some of the wonderful times I spent with my dad, who passed away 10 years ago—I’d consider that a real gift. With that type of memory, you could keep special experiences—or people—alive in your mind forever.
Brenna can remember any moment from her past with all of her senses. Which of your senses is the strongest? Is one most valuable to you as a writer?
I’d say my sense of hearing. I can’t sing to save my soul, but I’m a huge fan of all types of music. And like many writers, I’m a really good listener and a huge eavesdropper. I often take things I’ve overheard and build stories around them.
What was your process for plotting And She Was? You must have been very organized to include all the flashbacks!
The thing is, I’m not a naturally organized person—which I should have thought of before deciding to write a series about a character with perfect memory! I do love to plot, though, and plotting this book was a huge challenge. I tried outlining, but that didn’t really work. What worked best for this book was multiple timelines, with dates: I had one for Clea’s disappearance, one for Iris’s disappearance 11 years ago and another for Carol Wentz’s disappearance, which Brenna is investigating now. (And by “now,” I mean 2009. Sigh.) I wrote the book with all the timelines in front of me and tried to find ways to make all of them mesh. And still, I had tons of rearranging to do in my second draft.
There are many iconic series protagonists in crime fiction. Do you have a personal favorite?
Does it sound too cliché to say Sherlock Holmes? I loved those books as a kid and still stand in awe of his powers of deduction.
What’s next for Brenna Spector?
What starts as an investigation of a missing webcam girl becomes Brenna’s most personal—and dangerous—case, as she comes closer to solving the mystery of her sister’s disappearance.
What would you be your dream job if you weren’t writing suspense fiction?
Either travel writer or restaurant critic, for purely selfish reasons.