The Strand interview with J.S. Monroe, author of
The Last Thing She Remembers
How long after writing Find Me did the idea for The Last Thing She Remembers start to make its way into your head?
Find Me was a new genre for me. Up until that point, I’d been writing spy thrillers and I wanted to switch to psychological fiction. I love espionage but I felt I’d done all I could for now in the genre. It was quite a risk and I had no idea if it would pay off, but fortunately Find Me reached a much larger audience – it’s been translated into 14 languages – and it took a bit of time before I started to write the next one. It was like, OK, I’ve now entered this big new genre – what do I do now?! Unreliable narration is a key component of psychological thrillers but I’ve always wanted to explore it in different ways. I used bereavement hallucinations in Find Me but I was determined to push it to a whole new level in The Last Thing She Remembers. It took a few months for the idea to form, but then I came up with what I hope is a new and unsettling take on amnesia that involves a vertigo-inducing twist. I also wanted to see how far I could push first person unreliable narration without cheating the reader. That took a bit of figuring out.
While the book is incredibly thrilling, I never felt like we crossed into a place that was wholly unbelievable. How do you balance what is believable in a thriller and what isn’t?
That’s a very good question and one that I think every thriller writer wrestles with on a daily basis. You want to take your reader into a different and exciting world but it’s a question of balancing that heightened reality with credibility. Another author once told me that you’re allowed one big coincidence in a book – coincidences do, after all, happen in real life – but no more than one. His other bit of advice was to put your coincidence at the beginning of the story, never at the end. It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of course, who coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief”, when he was justifying the introduction of supernatural elements into his poetry, and his theory still holds true for other forms of writing, including modern thrillers. If you want to sweep the reader along with you and set aside any niggles they might ordinarily have, there must be “human interest” and “a semblance of truth”. In other words, give your readers compelling characters and what I call the whiff of authenticity, and you can get away with murder!
How do you map that sort of thing out in your head? Do you use a physical outline or just let the mystery unravel on the page?
I gave myself severe brain ache when I was coming up with the structure and multiple storylines for The Last Thing She Remembers. The reader is presented with three possible explanations for why a young woman turns up in a rural village with no ID and is unable to remember her own name. Each theory is explored through a different character and when I was writing a particular storyline, I believed in it 100 per cent. The answer to the woman’s arrival and identity could be any of these three narratives or it could be another reason entirely… I had a big white board in my office with lots of arrows and scribbles on it – it made Carrie’s color-coded pinboard in Homeland look simple!
Did you know going in how the book was going to end?
I always know where I need to get to by the end of the book but I don’t try to map out an exact, chapter-by-chapter plan before I start. It’s a bit like telling a joke: you know the punchline but there are a number of ways to get there. Some writers have a rigid structure all worked out before they start. In some ways, I envy them (I bet they have a tidy sock drawer), but I find this shuts down the possibility of exploring tangential ideas that might occur to me during the writing process – and that I could never have foreseen at the beginning. The Last Thing She Remembers is actually the eighth novel I’ve written and I think I’m getting better at knowing when I’m veering off course. In those beautiful but oh-so-rare moments when the writing’s going well, it’s a bit like the complete story’s already out there, fully formed, and all I have to do is follow it, like a path through the woods. I know pretty soon when I’ve taken a wrong turning. I just have to get back on the right path and follow the smell of candy…
One of my favorite aspects of the book was how real the town felt. The sort of panic and conspiracy that comes about with our protagonist’s appearance in the town feel incredibly layered and true to life. How did you go about creating the world of the story?
I’m so glad it felt that way as I worked hard to create a sense of unease and alarm within the community. I live in a small rural town in Wiltshire, about 90 miles west of London, not dissimilar to where my amnesic protagonist turns up. We’ve lived here for almost twenty years and I have shamelessly used some of the real settings – the pub, the canal, the doctor’s surgery – as the basis for my fictitious world. We’re not far from Salisbury, where the Novichok nerve agent poisoning took place, and this part of England is a curious mix of remote Neolithic landscapes and secret military facilities. I think that helps to engender a paranoid, conspiratorial atmosphere in the town and I’ve tried to capture that in the book. In any small community, people talk and gossip, and the arrival of a stranger in its midst will always create ripples of curiosity – and fear.
Have you started brainstorming your next book?
I’m pleased to say that I’ve almost finished it. I’m now on a contract to write one psychological thriller a year so there’s no time for idle navel-gazing. I usually take two to three months to think up a new idea and then around six months to write the first draft and another three months to edit and finesse. The new book is a modern, high-tech take on the gothic doppelganger trope. The widespread use of facial recognition software and our narcissistic desire to post selfies on social media means that it’s quite possible to find your double these days – or for them to find you…