I came across Gae Polisner‘s beautiful Young Adult novel, The Memory of Things when I was looking for books that addressed one of the themes that I’ve been exploring recently: memory loss especially as a result of traumatic experiences. I felt so grateful to have stumbled across such a touching, beautifully written story about young love in the aftermath of 9/11. It balances the real and the magical and captures perfectly the highs and lows of that transition between childhood and adulthood. Knowing that Gae Polisner lives in America, I reached out to her and she very graciously agreed to do this interview. I know that you’ll enjoy her answers as much as I did – and do buy a copy of her book, enjoy it and press it into the hands of all the teenagers you know.
Gae Polisner lives in Huntington, NY. She has written three Young Adult novels so far: The Pull of Gravity (2011, fsg); The Summer of Letting Go (2014, Algonquin YR); and The Memory of Things (2016, St. Martin’s). She is currently working on a YA/crossover with the working title of In Sight of Stars, which is due to be published in Winter 2018 from St. Martin’s Press/Wednesday Books. When I asked Gae what might come after that, she said: ‘Something new! Possibly a collaboration with a talented writer friend. Ideas are percolating! Gulp!’
Which three words would you use to describe yourself?
What do you love most about writing?
Love and longing; perception versus truth.
What do you find hardest about writing?
Writing through self doubt.
Where do you write?
Mostly in my “piano room” standing at the inherited baby grand that doesn’t play.
Do you have any particular writing habits or rituals?
Check Facebook constantly. Wait, that isn’t a ritual is it? :\
What inspired you to write The Memory of Things?
Well, wanting to grapple with my own lingering fear and grief around the event, but also, the girl came to me, covered in smoke and ash, and wearing those costume wings. Just appeared to me like that, letting me know she wanted to be written.
You clearly did a great deal of research for the book, especially concerning the details of 9/11. I was also fascinated by the amnesia suffered by one of your character (I won’t give her name away!). What interesting ideas did you discover about this condition, especially the kind of amnesia brought about by traumatic events?
Well, the interesting thing was that I learnt about my character’s condition before I ever decided to write her. A dear friend of mine had a bout of TIA (Transient Global Amnesia). It came on seemingly out of nowhere, though they linked it to an indirect trauma she had recently suffered, and it went away on its own after a few days. But when it happened and while it lasted, it was so bizarre, frightening, and weird.
I love the voice of your female character, how reflections are like small, fragmented poems. What made you choose to write her point of view in this way?
I’m so glad you love her voice. The word fragmented is exactly the word that I thought of when trying to settle on her voice. When we meet her on the bridge, the girl doesn’t know who she is or why she is there (or where she came from), so she is confused and traumatized, but also detached. She has a lack of general memory with current sensory information coming in at her from all places, as well as old painful memories that begin to nose their way in, first in tiny flashes and then, as the story unfolds, in more persistent imagery. So, I needed to choose a way that the reader might feel what she is feeling, and the fragmented thought seemed like a way that might serve that purpose.
What kind of child were you?
I was mostly cheerful, silly, bold, bossy, and animated as a younger kid, but as I reached adolescence and high school, my self esteem seemed to suffer a blow, and I didn’t always like myself as much as I should have. So, in my teens, I was angstier and more brooding, always wishing to be someone other than myself.
Which fictional character would you most like to meet?
Which book do you wish you’d written?
I write women’s fiction as well as YA, but haven’t yet succeeded in getting my women’s fiction published. I think I’d love to have written a book like The History of Love, or To Be Sung Underwater (both memorable and beautiful but very different) or the hilariously witty Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I’d happily take credit for most Barbara Kingsolver books. She’s an incredible writer.
Do you have any writing tics that you’re forever editing out?
Oh, yes! The nods and glances. The “just”s and “even”s. Yep.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Swim, some yoga, and play with my dog. Way too much social media. I keep reminding myself that there’s no solving the world’s problems through facebook or twitter, and yet. . .
What are you reading at the moment?
Hah, funny you should ask! I am reading A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve on audiobook, and a piece of women’s fiction on my Kindle called The Return of Norah Wells by Virginia Macgregor. So far, just lovely.
What’s your favourite word?
I love the word mesmerize. And cacophony. And kaleidoscope. I’m also a huge fan of the “f” word.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Hmmm, the most important one is hard to choose. How about a really important one?
How about that it’s important to be kind because we are all suffering in various degrees, and that it’s not all about me, usually not about me at all.
Which writer do you most admire?
Oh my gosh. . . so many and for different reasons. William Goldman is on my always and forever list. His storytelling is pure genius. Barbara Kingsolver’s writing is something to strive towards. And, it amazes me to think of some of the incredible writers who I have become friendly with through my own writing and social media. I adore Chris Crutcher both because of his incredible books and because of his incredible mind. He’s among the tops. But, really, so many. Too many to pin it down to a few.
What song or piece of music would you choose as the theme tune to your life?
Oh boy. I love a ton of songs, but the theme for my life? That would change on a weekly basis.
What’s your favourite quotation about writing or life or general?
One of my favourite general life quotes comes from my family:
Sometimes it’s blood, and sometimes it’s sweet and sour chicken.
If you want to know why, you can read an old blog post of mine here:
As for a writing quote, I still love this quote which has been attributed in several different versions to different writers:
Writing is easy. All you do is open a vein and bleed.
What are your top tips for writing a great Young Adult novel?
Oh wow. I’ll let you know when I have some. And I’ll take some if you have them for me. . . but you can always go back to “Read, read, read and write, write write. Then read and write some more.” Or something like that. 😀