Fantasy, Place, and History: Sara Interviews Bethany Morrow, Author of MEM

Sara: Thanks for chatting today! I’m really excited to talk about your new book!

Bethany Morrow: Me too!

SB: I just want to start off with a kind of overview question. Can you talk about the experience you’ve had thus far as a debut novelist? You were at Winter Institute, and our manager Ben met you there (and loves the book, as I do), so I think it’d be really cool to hear a bit about the experience from the author’s end.

BM: The experience at WI was absolutely amazing, because it was my first… anything. My first conference, my first reading, my first signing… It was the first time meeting my publisher. So a really really amazing experience.

It started out really horribly; the morning I was going to fly down to Memphis, I got in a car accident, and was stuck in a ditch for two hours in rural Vermont. So I was six hours late for Memphis, so it was really really weird.

I met my publisher at the hotel, and I was still sort of buzzing. She told me she was going to a party,and she asked if I wanted to go with her. And, um… we ended up walking toward what I ASSUMED was certain death. It was nowhere near where anything else was. There were no people, just traffic lights that were all taking a really long time, but there were no cars. It was just really creepy.

I was just like, I know the signs that this is a horror film. So we got to this random building that looked like it was a maybe a duplex, but it was in the middle of a concrete lot. It had a fence around it, and it was silent.

But as soon as the door opens, then you hear all this sound! I could have sworn the house was abandoned, but it was a huge publishing party. I met people from tin house, I met Emma Straub (with whom [I’ve done] an event at her bookstore in Brooklyn)… It was very strange — a fun sort of strange.

If you were watching an HBO show about writers, this was the type of party that you would see on a TV show. Out in the middle of nowhere, think you’re going to die, and then everyone around you is drinking or drunk and it smells like you’re wading through a vat of red wine.

SB: Heehee!

BM: At midnight, as we were leaving, someone yelled “DON’T WORRY, THE KARAOKE MACHINE JUST GOT HERE” and I was just like… what is happening.

SB: There are some serious partiers in the publishing industry.

BM: That was an interesting first foray into publishing. It was good times. I absolutely loved the signing.

You talk about your book with yourself and your publisher and your writer friends for so long, and then you go someplace and all these people are talking to you like they’ve heard of your book! It’s so weird! I had no idea that this many people were aware of my book. The signing was really interesting. The reading was good… As soon as it was done.

SB: That’s a big moment, a first reading.

BM: Yeah, and then, hey, here’s a room full of two hundred people.

SB: Where were you visiting from at that point?

BM: Well, part of the week I’m in montreal — normally the weekend — and then the weekdays i’m in northern New York.

SB: That’s so different from Memphis I’m sure.

BM: Well, it was my first time going to the south.

SB: That barely even counts!

BM: I don’t know what the south is. I’m just hearing from other people. I’ve been to Florida, but somehow that’s not the south? I’m just like, okay, someone else just tell me what’s going on. I’m from California. I don’t know.

SB: So of all these places, what drew you to writing about Montreal as the setting for Mem? That was such a cool setting to have, both historically and geographically. I love sci-fi, and I don’t see a whole lot of it set in Canada, especially by folks who aren’t Canadian nationals. I loved that facet of it.

BM: It is really interesting to me that literature doesn’t speak to Montreal very much. The reason it’s so funny to me is because everything is shot in Montreal, [particularly] American TV shows and movies. Maybe Americans can’t tell, but if you live in Montreal, you can tell that that’s where it was shot! This is not Boston, not New York, not Chicago. There have been so many movies where it’s like, ‘You guys… This is so obvious.”

The best part, of course, will be there’s extras or small characters in the show who will clearly have a Montreal accent, even though the regulars will be American. Right before I moved, directly outside my bedroom window for a few months was film shooting back to back. X-Men shot, then Suicide Squad, I think. The lot next to my duplex was all film production for literally the last six months.

So that’s a totally normal thing to happen. Then when you think about literature, it’s almost like Canada doesn’t exist. That’s always been weird to me. One thing I wanted to do was put the focus in Montreal. So much, like I was saying, happens in Montreal, but it’s not about Montreal, because it’s pretending to be something else.

SB: Right.

BM: So I personally — it was my adopted city at the time — I didn’t know if I was going to be leaving, and I still really haven’t left completely *laughs*. I wanted to write about this place I loved. But I also did a whole lot of research before I went to Montreal. Basically when I found out there had been Canadian slavery and the equivalent of Jim Crow — all these things you’re lied to about constantly. I had read a book called THE HANGING of ANGELIQUE by Afua Cooper, which was about the enslaved woman who was put to death for one of the great Montreal fires.

I wasn’t actively writing about that sort of thing, but it definitely was something I was very aware of when I wrote the book. I did have to make a decision to purposely omit racism. I write in my author’s note, because I don’t want to contribute to the lie that Canada is this great, magical place, like once you pass the border racism suddenly doesn’t exist.

SB: Which is a narrative that a lot of americans get, especially regarding the Underground Railroad as having a Beginning and End Point.

BM —And we believe it, which is really… I don’t know if that’s a testament to Americans being willing to believe that everyone else is further along than them or not, but it makes no sense. I’m not sure what about going north was supposed to create moral superiority. It did not.

So when I first got to Montreal, I went to a history museum there. I thought, they can’t completely omit this. At least about Angelique… Because Montreal is a fire-prone city, this was one of the major fires, and someone was executed for it. And she happened to be a slave. So like, how could you not talk about it.

But nope, no mention of her whatsoever. Not even of slavery. It was just completely omitted, and Americans totally buy it.

In my author’s note, I say — I personally was writing about Elsie, and the world of [Mem] is about Elsie. I didn’t want her identity to be even more intersectionally oppressed. That’s the only reason why I don’t talk about something that’s explicitly real. But I do talk about the books I’d like people to read by black Canadian scholars about that culture of omission.

I love Montreal the same way you love any city you know. I love it with my eyes open.

SB: Even though you’re not talking about this stuff directly, you have these incredibly iconic quotes in your book, like, “what kind of people are we if we can’t traverse the landscape of our own memories, and what kind of people do they become who refuse?”

BM: The first thing people say is “what’s your favorite quote from your book?” and I’m like… Uh…

SB: That’s a hard question.

BM: I don’t remember every word in my book, so that’s weird! But when I was looking back [at that quote], I thought, so that’s my point.

SB: I was rereading Mem while they were opening the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, the lynching memorial. All those quotations were sticking out of the page for me! There’s already so much bound up in Elsie’s character, as a historical female who already has her agency questioned to such a high degree.

BM: I always separate what I, as the author, intentionally and consciously did. Sometimes people might think I’m decrying or denouncing the thing they’re bringing up. My problem is just that I have to be very clear about both. They don’t negate each other. When I say that I, as a black artist, was literally following Elsie and what it would mean to be Elsie in that world, that’s what I was consciously doing.

Art does not happen in a vacuum though. I’m still a black American woman living in 2018, and I wrote it. I know certain things, I’ve researched certain things. I’ve lived certain things.

Me saying ‘it’s important to me to express that this is what I was doing when I wrote it” is because sometimes, as a black woman, I want to be able to talk about the art. And this is the art that I created. Obviously all these other things, and my experience and knowledge base and criticism of the world I’ve lived in are still relevant. I’m glad people are talking about them. I think it’d be a disservice if we weren’t talking about them.

It’s a difficult balance to strike because so much — as Toni Morrison said, black literature is always treated as sociology, as some sort of academic thing, as though we can’t simply create art. So I’m saying — this is a piece of art. Art that I created. Once we establish that, we need to be able to also talk about the BOOK I wrote. Then of course I also want to talk about these other things. I just refuse to be reduced to those things.

SB: On that note, let’s dive in. Mem centers around the possibility that a human (or source, if they participate this process), can extract a memory from themselves, which is then able to live for a short period of time as as human form before expiring. Elsie, the main character, is a mem with a particularity: she can live like a regular person, rather than just living and reliving a particular memory from her source, Dolores.

Firstly, there are huge philosophical issues of cloning and extracting memories, but at its root this book is the story of one woman trying to figure out her own agency, too. Did this start in your mind as a thought experiment? Did it start as a love story? Where did the roots of this book come from?

BM: I’m not even sure I could consider it a love story now. I think the interesting thing to talk about with people who’ve read it is what Harvey does. How, for someone in his position of privilege, it’s the only thing that he could do that would be meaningful for her. So in that sense, at the end is where I’d say, oh, that’s a love story. 

When I first thought about the book, and I talked about this at Winter Institute, the first thing that ever came to me was just the fact that I wish cloning was more “science fiction” than “science,” because scientific cloning is pretty boring — it’s just replicating material. It’s not terribly interesting to me.

I remember thinking that when I was a kid, and being like, why do we care so much about this Dolly the Sheep thing? There’s not way to talk to Dolly and be like, hey, do you share the same memories? Does this person know anything about you? It’s just another sheep.

So it started for me, honestly, just thinking about cloning as a way to actually manage memory. At first it was about sharing memory, then it was about excluding memory. Then you start following Elsie around. She is very sure and convicted about a lot of things, even when she doesn’t know whether she’s allowed to be. She’s coming to understand her — like you said, her agency — but I think a lot of people mistake it for her coming to know about herself. I don’t think she ever didn’t know about herself. I think she lacked the language, because it’s being threatened and being questioned so often.

In that way, I do think about what it is to be a black woman. Like, I’m not confused about my identity whatsoever. i’m confused about why everyone has such a strong opinion when they couldn’t possibly know. i’m confused about why everyone else’s opinions carry more weight than mine about my own identity. I’m confused about those things, i’m not confused about who I am. i’m confused about why everyone else is talking.

So Elsie’s story is about someone who is figuring out how to exact her agency. How to move around in a world that has given themselves so much authority over something she understands is hers.

SB: Which is a really awesome point for the reader to come in because we don’t have to figure out as readers whether we should, like, discuss her as a subjective character of the book. she’s inherently, immediately, a quite likable character. It really allows us to dive into her world and her perceptions of what’s happening around her with ease and excitement.

BM: Someone pointed out in a review that [the book] begins well into her life. For me, as a writer, it’s like, where does this story actually begin? Her “inciting incident” isn’t just “being created.” For me, the question of her existence was not a question. The inciting incident of this particular story, and this is just on a craft level, begins well into her existence, because it would be when her identity is the most threatened and questioned. I like that people are talking about that. It would be a completely different story; what the reader would take away from it — and the confidence the reader would have in Elsie’s identity — would be different, also, if the story began at the point at which she’s extracted.

SB: And in a sense, the point at which her existence begins is also complicated: because of her extraction, and her shared memories with Dolores, and also her experiences with Dolores’ parents.

BM: Maybe no one wants to hear about when an author tears up during her own book — but every time I’ve read it, the thing that’s always made me tear up is the mother’s response. Everything else I enjoy going back over, but that — I don’t know if it’s more upsetting to me as a daughter or as a mother.

I don’t think I could stand in front of someone who looks like my child, and who is talking like my child, and who remembers things my child remembers… I don’t think my bigotry is that strong that I would reject that person out of hand. Especially as a sign of loyalty. Especially if my birth child were fractured, I’d be looking for them wherever I could find them. It’s upsetting that [Dolores’ parents] feel that strongly.

SB: I’m curious to hear you talk a bit more about the changes that occur to Dolores, versus the changes that occur to Elsie, when they meet; for example, the waning physical presence of Dolores at that point in time. I’d love to hear a little more about your thought process behind the way in which the fracturing process shows physically, and is such a visceral facet of the book.

BM: I have to see things in my head, I’m much more of a cinematic person than I’m supposed to be for a writer. I have to see things in my head before I can write them. I think the first thing I saw that let me know there would be trouble in the story was actually the mem Elsie comes into contact with when she first gets recalled. Again, I didn’t know this was going to happen; I knew mems were going to expire, because that was kind of the whole point, but I didn’t realize that it was going to be so physically apparent and inhuman. I could see why the world didn’t see mems as people, because these figures change in a completely inhuman way. But once I saw that, then I was like, I feel like the source would break in a similar way.

I guess I wanted to make the world hypocritical. I, as an outsider, could see a mem expiring and say Okay, I can understand why you’re so certain this isn’t a real person. What’s happening to them is completely unnatural. But then, that’s to a great extent what we see happen to the source as well, and no one comes to that conclusion. So I knew I wanted Dolores to be strong, and I don’t mean strong like “a strong female character” *in sing-song voice* — because I don’t know what that means — but I wanted her to be a robust person.

For how many procedures it’s estimated she’s gone through, [in order to separate her memories and create mems], she shouldn’t really be capable of anything you see her do. She shouldn’t have the little sense you see her have. I think that’s also why Elsie is so robust. But I don’t know. I thought, what would be the most troubling way to disappear?

SB: That’s really beautiful. Do you think of the character of Dolores as being special, and maybe that’s why Elsie is special? Or is it just a way of opening up of a world of complications?

BM: For me, I think it’s… Dolores is a black woman, obviously… And I think it was going to take a lot more if someone hadn’t stepped in and robbed her of it, which is why Elsie was made in the first place, I think it was going to take a hell of a lot more than the world was aware of to break Dolores, if it’s even possible. What you find is that [memories] have been taken from Dolores that didn’t need to be taken in the first place, for the purposes of manipulation and control. Things have been taken from her that weren’t traumatic.

In comparison, you see somebody like Walter, who has only taken out what we’d all agree were horrible traumatic memories, and he is not an adult anymore after that. It’s not thought that he’s had anywhere close to as many extractions as Dolores.

So for me, I think inherently that women are stronger. Period. It’s observable fact. There’s no discussion. For a black woman, I think that’s a type of strength that is both revered — people love saying “I have a strong black woman inside myself” (I promise that you don’t. You have no understanding of what that even means). I am walking around and doing life and creating art right now, and if we had to trade places… what we say is that we don’t want to focus on our burdens. but I am so familiar with this burden, and familiar with the fact that iti s unrelenting. I do know that this would kill someone else.

If we were to trade places tomorrow, the beauty of being a black woman would not sustain you. The weight of global hatred, the weight of being seen at the same time as the “Savior,” the person who’s going to be the “Mammy” and going to take care of people and make everything better, despite yourselves, and then at the same time be completely despised and dehumanized…

There has never even been any sort of indication on a social level that this was an abomination. We’re just walking around in a world that has beaten, abused, tried to destroy us, been fascinated by the fact that they can’t destroy us, been pissed off they can’t destroy us, killed us in secret, killed us in public, and you’re living through all of that knowing that nobody ever had to say “I’m sorry.” No one ever had to make amends, and because of that, there is no social understanding that this was even wrong. Society as a whole has never agreed that this was wrong.

SB: Right. There hasn’t been any kind of collective reckoning.

BM: So we’re dealing with the lack of that in the imagination of whiteness. Because they never had to apologize for this, they are not convinced this is wrong. Which means they are not going to stop.

So for me, Dolores is stronger, is more, than I think most people who read the book will acknowledge. The only way to end her was to literally end her.

SB: That’s incredible. A whole lot is pent up in her character. It’s important to note that this book is a slim, understated volume, and their identities carry so much; and the book is so much more than its under-200-pages.

BM: I love novellas because it doesn’t make sense that this is all in a novella. I think novellas are, for me personally, the perfect medium for literature.

SB: As you move forward, are you working on another novella-length piece?

BM: I’ve always been working on novellas. For adults, I don’t think I’ve gotten past novellas. The optioned book I turned in to my adult publisher clocks in right now at 50,00 words. So technically right now it’s a short novel, but it’s only, what, ten thousand words outside a novella.

And that was me actually thinking I was going to write a full length novel! That was definitely not trying to be a novella and overshooting — it was, this is going to be a regular novel. No… it’s not.

With young adult, strangely, it’s very easy to get to 85,000 words. It’s not just word count though. Especially for people who aren’t writers I think it’s like, oh, if I don’t hit 80,000 i’ll just make it a novella. No, that’s not how it works. It’s a completely different entry point into a world, or concept, or story, or character. It’s a very intimate work — almost to the exclusion of the world.

We see the world as it orbits around elsie. We don’t try to go out into the world and understand the world for its sake; we understand it as it pertains to her. That’s a really important thing that novellas allow you to do, is build a world through a character. For me, the entry point is this intimate portrait of someone in particular. Novels are completely different!

So for adult work, I don’t know if it’s just because of how intimate I find myself being with those characters, but I tend toward shorter work for adult work, and then more novel-length for young adult.

SB: I think for young adults, too, there’s so much excitement in being able to flesh out an entire world. I was poking around and looking at the unpublished book you’ve written for young adults —

BM: — The Last Life of Avrilis —

SB: —Yeah, and I WANT TO READ IT.

BM: Working on that! We will read that someday. 

My first young adult will be very different from that. The thing about [The Last Life of Avrilis] is that I’m not sure it will be young adult when it comes out. I don’t think the book will change, I just honestly think maybe it is a little too cerebral. The feedback i’ve gotten is “you’re sure this isn’t adult?” so maybe it’s adult.

I don’t know. It’s about a teenager, it was meant to be YA, but it’s also the kind of teenager I was. So it’s interesting that people aren’t sure it’s YA. I’m like, okay, well, this is exactly why young adults like me were reading Toni Morrison. Because everyone was telling you, hey, the way you use language isn’t young adult.

SB: Well, clearly, if I’m a young adult talking about it…

BM: The one that will be coming out in 2020 with Tor is totally different. It’s a contemporary fantasy, which is the first time I’ve ever written contemporary fantasy. And it’s set in Portland, Oregon in a kind of present day, just with supernatural facets. It’s a world where sirens are only black women.

So one of the sisters is a secret siren, and the other one is something else, and she’s trying to discover what she is. It’s dealing with age, the unrelenting amount of misogynoir in the world, but also what that’s like being specifically from the west, and having people somehow believe — again — that there’s a sort of like… lack of racism.

I spent a lot of time in Portland because I have a sister that lives there. I do think people need to understand — if you’re from an entirely white place in this country, that’s intentional. [This book is] what it’s like to live around a bunch of really self-congratulatory people who have no idea why you’d feel unsafe.

SB: I so dig that you’re really taking geography as a huge writing point in these books.

BM: It’s crazy, because that’s only the second time I’ve done this, and they’re being published back to back. Previously, I’d always written second world. It was always someplace not-Earth — close to Earth, maybe, but never dealing with familiar places — and then, back to back, these projects are actually dealing with places i’ve been. I know that’s not rare for authors, but that’s weird for me.

SB: Because of Tor being more sci-fi- and fantasy-directed, I hope people see that and really hone in on it.

BM: I’m very excited for that book to come out. I wish it were coming out in 2019!

I do have something else coming out in 2019, which hasn’t been announced yet. It’s YA, it’s an anthology, and until it gets announced… that’s all I can say about it.

SB: That’s a thrilling tidbit!

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about Mem!

Bethany Morrow’s book, Mem, is available for purchase below and in our store!

Mem By Bethany C. Morrow Cover Image
ISBN: 9781944700553
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Unnamed Press - May 22nd, 2018

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