The Bourne Identity. The Girl on the Train. Before I Go To Sleep. Though vastly different, these thrillers have something in common: all incorporate memory loss into their plots.
Memory, as we know, can be a tenuous thing. At the same time, it’s vital to survival. Without our memories, we’d be unable to perform basic functions or learn anything new. What’s more, we wouldn’t know how to avoid precarious situations. People who endangered us in the past could cause us harm all over again, and we may miss opportunities to help others who are vulnerable to those same threats.
The concept of memory features prominently in Behind the Red Door, the latest thriller from author Megan Collins. The story follows Fern Douglas as she struggles to unlock past memories after recognizing a missing woman on TV. Fern returns to her hometown in New Hampshire to try to recall as much as she can and help recover Astrid Sullivan.
“Memory plays a pivotal role in Behind the Red Door in that the main character, Fern, comes to believe she has a connection to Astrid—the victim of a famous, decades-old kidnapping who has recently gone missing again—but can’t remember why she feels so certain that she knows her,” Collins explains. “Throughout the novel, Fern tries to interrogate and trigger her own memories, believing that she may have repressed some information about Astrid as a child. Fern is finding that she can’t really trust her memories, but she has no choice but to rely on them in order to find and save Astrid.”
That uneasiness with her own memory is part of what makes this novel so compelling. Behind the Red Door invites readers to question how much we really remember about our childhoods.
Collins believes that all memories, from childhood to adulthood, can be misleading. “Often, our memories are colored and distorted by the emotions we experienced at the time, which means that they can’t be taken as fact. That’s a hard truth to grapple with,” she says, “because if we can’t trust that our memories are one hundred percent true, then what does that mean for our understanding of reality, of the world?”
It isn’t uncommon for authors to incorporate real-life experiences into their writing. For Collins, one of these features in her first book, The Winter Sister.
“I let my main character in my debut borrow one of my own experiences because it was a good vehicle for highlighting an essential part of her past,” Collins says. “The memory did change when slotted into the context of her life. It’s a happy memory of mine, but given the dark turn that the character’s life takes, that memory in her life becomes shadowed with pain in a way that it isn’t for me.”
While that was the only memory Collins consciously worked into a novel, she sometimes draws on the emotions she’s felt at various stages of her life while writing. It’s a process that can be quite cathartic.
“I tend to rely on the emotional core of my memories, rather than the remembered experiences themselves,” she says. “Often, my novels act as giant metaphors for emotions I’ve lived through and learned from, and the characters and situations within the story are vehicles for conveying those emotions. This means that my books are actually a way that I tend to process my own memories, and sometimes heal from them.”
By exploring the notion of memory in their work, writers can shape plots, deepen characters, and heighten suspense. Megan Collins does all three in her gripping novels – and readers aren’t likely to forget it.
Tessa Wegert is the author of Death in the Family and The Dead Season, part of the Shana Merchant series of mysteries. A Canadian-born former freelance writer whose work appeared in Forbes, The Huffington Post, Adweek, and The Economist, Tessa now lives with her husband and children in Coastal Connecticut.