If traveling to a new city can be tricky, imagine doing so with no short-term memory since before you were 10 years old.
That’s exactly what Flora Banks experiences in journalist-turned-author Emily Barr’s latest book, The One Memory of Flora Banks.
The YA novel—and Barr’s first of the kind—follows 17-year-old anterograde amnesiac Flora as she travels to Svalbard, Norway after receiving an email from Drake, a boy she actually remembers kissing before he left. Unfortunately for Flora, that’s the only recent memory she retains, which means she’s alone in the land of the Midnight Sun, with only a few written reminders of who she is and why she can’t seem to remember.
EW spoke to Barr about her novel’s location and the challenges of writing a teenager with amnesia. Also, see an exclusive look at the cover of The One Memory of Flora Banks.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You travelled to Svalbard, Norway with the aim of setting a book there. What was it about that city that inspired you to do that?
BARR: I woke up one day with a book in my head that was set in the Arctic. I wanted to write a thriller set in a place in which it never gets dark. I have no idea where that came from but I was suddenly obsessed by the idea of the midnight sun, and I had a vague figure of a main character who was confused about where she was and what she was doing there, a confusion that would be heightened by the fact that it never got dark. I started looking for a real place in the Arctic that matched the place in my head, and when I found Svalbard I knew that I had found it. It’s an archipelago halfway between the north of Norway and the North Pole, part of Norway but also not part of Norway. Many more polar bears than people live there. It is magical.
How did your time there shape this novel?
I went there alone and walked around looking at things. This is essentially what Flora does too, though she is very specifically looking for one person. I don’t believe you can write a book set in a place unless you’ve been there (unless the place is somewhere like Mars). On one of the days I was there I went out on a day-long boat trip out into the wilds. The sun was shining, the sky was deep blue, and it was completely silent. It made a huge impression on me: it was a day away from the human race. We saw polar bears, arctic foxes, and millions of puffins. I knew that that boat trip would play a part in Flora’s journey, and I also wanted her to find the same enchantment in it that I did.
What made you decide to make your protagonist a teenage amnesiac?
When I started writing the book Flora was older, in her twenties, but it didn’t quite work. When I tried it with her being younger it all fell into place. I think she has to be in her teens for the story: it is a coming of age story that is kicked off by a kiss. Flora needs to work out who she is and what kind of person she is going to be, in the same way we all do. The stakes are higher for her because of the amnesia, and I hope makes the reader cheer her along.
What was it like writing a character with no short-term memory? Was there a lot of research involved? Did you learn anything interesting during that process?
It was fascinating! It took a lot of discipline in the writing because I kept having to go back and make sure Flora was never remembering anything recent. The whole story had to be in the present tense, and there could never be any flashbacks to anything that had happened after she was 10. That was surprisingly difficult. I read a lot about anterograde amnesia (online papers, and books, particularly the amazing work of Dr Oliver Sacks), and I asked an old university friend, Dr Kevin Fong, for advice. The main thing I took away from it is how hard you have to work if your brain is in any way different from the norm: Flora is constantly reorienting herself through notes on her hands and arms and in her notebooks.
Your book stirred up a lot of interest. What was it like being a part of such a big auction and having so many publishers want your story?
It was amazing! I wrote this book without a publisher, because it was so different from my previous ones. I never had any idea that anyone would ever publish it and during the process of writing it I maxed out my credit cards and got quite scared. I had to believe in the book to keep going; so when it did go out into the world and find so many people who wanted to publish it, it really was a dream come true.
The One Memory of Flora Banks will be published May 16, 2017.