Just prior to The Forgetting book launch event at Parnassus Books in Nashville, we spoke with author Sharon Cameron about her thrilling new sci-fi adventure, its questions of memory and truth, and what it’s like to belong somewhere you never expected.
First of all, I have to say that I loved this book and am still thinking about it. And I felt like my writer’s review sounded like he was thinking about it long after finishing the book as well.
I personally love books that make me think, so I naturally gravitate toward writing a book like that, one that’s going to make someone think and make me think. I had a really funny review on Goodreads, where someone had given me a five-star review that said, “This book really made me think, and I liked it anyway.” I was like, “Yes!”
Amazing. Reluctant thinking. You’re going to sit down, think about it, and you’re going to like it.
That’s right. (laughing)
What was your inspiration for The Forgetting?
There’s not one [inspiration], but I think the main one is that I do think a lot about the past. History is absolutely my thing. I am very into genealogy and heritage, and that’s how I started writing. I wrote my very first novel about the family history that I had been researching. I love getting into the basement of a courthouse, and all the dusty records—all that stuff makes me really happy.
I think the past is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about, not only what is different about the past but what’s the same, and what links us to the past. It occurred to me at some point that what really links us to the past is memory, and there’s so much we’ve forgotten. There was so much in my family history that were incredible stories that had been completely forgotten. It’s almost like that erases it out of existence until you know it again. . . . When I was thinking about all the things that the world had forgotten, it made me think about people who have actually really forgotten everything, and how much of our identity is wrapped up in those memories, and how much of our experience makes us who we are, and remembering those experiences makes us who we are. That’s where it blossomed out from, and I started thinking, what would a group of people do if they did not have their identity, if they had no history, if they were going to lose it again?
This makes me think of an interview with Billy Collins we just did—it’ll be in the October issue of BookPage—where he talks about humans’ ability to dwell in the past, how we find pleasure in nostalgia. It’s OK to indulge in our memories sometimes.
I don’t think you have to be defined by them, either. I think it’s great to know and understand what those things are, but you don’t have to be defined by them.
When you’re reading The Forgetting, it’s inevitable that you consider your own potential loss of memories. It’s what I was thinking about the whole time while reading it. In the vein of, if your house is on fire and you have one suitcase to take with you, if you faced the Forgetting, what would be your suitcase of memories if you were allowed to choose what not to lose?
That is such a hard question, because how can you choose? (laughs) I’m going to think beyond the obvious, which is your family and your emotional ties. That was something with the book that I gave a lot of thought to, how much of our emotions are tied up in our memories. If those are gone, a lot of those emotional ties are cut. Whether they would be there or not be there in some deep way was a question that I explored. So I’m going to skip over all of that, because that’s obvious. You don’t want the trauma of losing your emotional ties.
I would not want to forget the first time I read The Lord of the Rings. I would never want to forget that! That was so magical to me, and that was a real eye-opening experience. I was probably 11 when I read that and already a reader, but I think that book really showed me how you can be transported and how your imagination can take you to a whole other place. I would not give up that experience. Actually, I keep trying to relive it by rereading it. (laughs)
I would not give up a lot of what I know about my heritage. I would not give up knowing where I came from, the good parts and the bad parts.
I would not want to give up my first trip to Scotland. I think Scotland is probably my spiritual home and I love it there very, very much. It was almost, I felt very connected to that place in a really deep way. I would not give up my memories of that, I don’t think.
I think those are some good ones, right?
This is completely off-topic, but I’m fascinated by the idea of places where you “have” to go, places that you call your “spiritual home,” like Scotland for you. I was just talking to a painter whose “place” was Uganda, and she keeps going back there. What do you think that is? Where do you think that comes from, that draw to a certain place?
I think it’s DNA, personally. I think that there’s a lot—and I don’t want to say too much because I’m writing another book about this—I think there’s a lot that we remember almost chemically, through our DNA. There’s been a lot of research on this lately, and a lot of stories have been coming out about how memories can be passed down. That’s what instinct is, that’s why we have phobias of certain things. We’re naturally afraid of a spider—these are memories that are being chemically passed down through your DNA. I think there can be a place memory. I really do. I just think it must be true. There’s some place memory where you are drawn. . . .
I tend to be a very logical, practical person, and I don’t know how that’s true, but I still believe it. I had the experience of stepping onto a piece of ground and just feeling like my feet sank a foot into the soil. I felt like roots grew. This is my spot. It was very strange, and it was the whole reason I started writing my first book, which was about Scotland and isn’t published.
Do you think it ever will be?
Yeah, I do. And I’m so glad, actually, that it’s not published. I was still learning then and I had no ambitions to be a writer at that time. I was learning at that point, but that story is so meaningful to me, and I can do it so much better now. I got an agent based on that book. It’s how I completely started, but we ended up going another direction first. I’ll go back to it.
Actually, my husband did DNA tests—there’s all kinds of Scottish surname projects where people connect through DNA—and he actually turned out to be directly descended from all the characters in my book. It was crazy. . . . I feel like I was meant to to do it, even though I didn’t know for many years.
Going back to The Forgetting, you’re toying with the notion of truth, how what you believe to be the truth can be twisted as much as memory. What do you hope young readers will take away from the book?
Your truth really can’t be twisted. It is what it is. That doesn’t mean that a person can’t develop and change and reinterpret their life. It doesn’t mean, again, that you have to be define by those things. But I think [it’s necessary to accept] things that are just true about yourself: These are my faults, these are the things I’m good at, this is where I came from, this is where I didn’t come from. I think happy people are the ones who have made peace with those truths and acknowledged them, and learned to use them and live with them.
What do you most enjoy about creating new worlds like this one for adults?
My other books have been very historically based. I really like that because I’m a history person, and I love the groundedness of that, of being able to go, “Yes! People acted like that.” But this book was much more of a branching out for me. It could really be anything, and I was very surprised at how freeing that was, that I could really make anything be that I wanted to be. If the sun didn’t need to set for 80 days, it could be 80. If I needed the sun to set in 70 days, it could be 70. I could really make it be what I wanted it to be, and that was actually really fun. It gave me lots of scope.
Do you think you’ll continue with this style?
I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that’s completely the same, yet. I would never say that I’m not going to do something. I like not being limited.
The book that I’m writing right now is a companion to The Forgetting. It’s not a sequel, but it’s the same world, different time period, different characters, sort of opposite questions.
What’s something your readers might be surprised to know about your writing process?
I’ll tell you what I was most surprised to discover about my writing process, and that is that I never know what I’m doing. (laughs) I never have the feeling that I actually know what I’m doing or anything that I’m writing is any good. When I first started to write, I viewed published authors—and I’m sure other people feel this exact same way—as, And I figured that I would get two or three books out, and I would have this confidence of, Oh, yeah, I know how to write a book. I’ve never felt like I knew what I was doing at all. I’m always so surprised when it turns out well. (laughs)
This book had a very short deadline, so I was really having to write quickly. I’ve never had to push myself quite that hard to write quickly, and I was consumed with self-doubt on this book. I didn’t know if I could do it. Be fast and be brilliant! No pressure. I saw Margaret Peterson Haddix when she was here. She’s a friend, and we were having dinner together. I was telling her these things, and she said, “Well, I have 20-something books out”—I can’t even remember the number she used, and she said, “I never know if I can write a book or not.” It made it alright, and it gave me the confidence to doubt what I’m doing and keep going.
As a local author, what’s your favorite literary event in Nashville?
I’ll give you two things. My very favorite thing that goes on for writers and anyone who loves kid lit is SCBWI’s conference, which is happening next weekend. . . . That is the most fabulous group of people—supporting writers, supporting people who love books. They are vibrant and amazing and my best friends in the world, and I love to spend a weekend with them. There is nothing more rejuvenating and wonderful that spending a weekend with the SCBWI Midsouth people. I get to give a keynote this year, and I’m super excited because I went to that conference for the first time 10 years ago. I had written one chapter and had never written anything before in my life. What I knew was zero! I went into that place, and I came out thinking, Yes, I can do it. I can absolutely do this. It’s a very special thing for me.
And who cannot love the Southern Festival of Books? That’s also a thing of beauty and wonder!
Questions and answers have been edited for length.