Karen McMillan is the author of 11 published books, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. Her novels have been bestsellers and include the historical novels The Paris of the East, and The Paris of the West. Her non-fiction books include Unbreakable Spirit: Facing the Challenge of Cancer in New Zealand, From the Blitz to the Burmese Jungle and Beyond, Feast or Famine and Love Bytes. Her books have been published in New Zealand and around the world, and have garnered popular and critical acclaim. You can learn more about her at www.karenm.co.nz. She takes the time to talk to NZ Booklovers about her latest novel.
Tell us a little about your new novel, Brushstrokes of Memory
It’s a contemporary novel, set in New Zealand. Rebecca wakes in hospital after a head injury, missing nearly ten years of her memory. Now almost 42, she can’t remember anything after her 32nd birthday. The last thing she remembers is life being very happy, but there has been some tragedy in the past ten years, and she has also made some bad decisions. Even though her husband, Daniel, is there holding her hand, she doesn’t realise they are about to break up. But Daniel is still very much in love with his wife and doesn’t want to separate, so when he discovers she doesn’t remember the past decade he decides to be selective about what he tells her about their life of late. And Rebecca’s best friend Julie is there to help Rebecca through this challenging time, but she is adamant that some things from the past ten years are Daniel’s responsibility to tell Rebecca. So it’s about a couple in trouble, where only one of them remembers the trouble. It’s a book that explores the impact that memory has on our lives – both the positive aspects, but also the negative aspects.
What inspired you to write this book?
I read a real life account of a woman in the UK who had suffered memory loss and couldn’t even remember her husband. But I felt like I know this story from Hollywood movies – movies about trying to fall in love again. In my novel, Rebecca remembers being madly in love with her husband, but not all the difficulties they have had since her 32nd birthday. I was interested in writing about a couple in trouble, but with one of them who can only remember all the good things about their relationship and not their heartache. This is a story about a woman rediscovering her life – all the good and the bad, the grief and the tragedy – it’s a gradual mystery that she needs to unravel.
What research was involved?
At first, the thought of memory loss seemed the stuff of fiction, but when I got stuck into the research, and the more I read on the subject matter, the more I realise that it’s not. Losing long-term memory tends to happen after some head injury, brain damage, disease or even psychological trauma. Traumatic Brain Injury is quite common after a head injury, which can be caused by a car accident, a fall, an attack, even a game of rugby.
One particularly interesting account was of a British woman, Noami Jacobs who had a form of memory loss that this brought on by stress. She woke up on 2008 in her 30s believing she was 15 years old. She wrote about her experience in a book called Forgotten Girl. She got her memories back after eight weeks. And I think this is where a lot of fiction gets it wrong, however – people usually don’t lose their memories forever. Most people get their memories back in days, weeks or months.
I also did a lot of research into events from 2003 to 2013, and spoke to artists and musicans about their craft to try to understand the way they think. I discovered they are as diverse as writers are, of course!
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I didn’t have any routines when writing this book. I just wrote when I could, and I guess I’m fortunate that I can write anywhere – I don’t have to be in a quiet room by myself. But the first draft came out quite quickly as my characters were fully formed in my mind when I started the project.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
Daniel is a musician, so there is already a selection of songs that feature in the book. But I’d want to include the Adeaze version of How Deep is Your Love, and Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars. This novel is a love story after all!
If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?
I’m probably a little unusual, but I find it almost impossible to name actors who would play my three central characters. But I’m sure a lot of actors would do a superb job. Rebecca would be the most complex to play. She’s an artist, very creative, thinking and seeing things in shapes and colours, and usually she is a contented, happy person. But now she’s experienced tragedy, she’s made mistakes, and she’s very confused and unhappy about the life she is living. Daniel is the character who would be the most frustrating. He’s a talented musician, and people relate to his easy charm. But he has a huge character flaw – he hates conflict, and will do anything to avoid having a conversation about issues that could be contentious. Some of my readers have been hard on him – but that’s the key flaw in his personality. If you examine his actions, however, he is consistently supportive of his wife, and he has sacrificed an incredible amount to try and help her through hard times. But having a conversation about their troubles? That’s almost impossible for him. And my final character, Julie, is a wonderfully warm character, a woman who manages a rest home for people with dementia (which gave me another angle to explore memory loss from). She’s a salt of the earth type of person, with a great deal of compassion and common sense. She’s a person who’s comfortable in her own skin. I’m sure actors would have a lot of fun playing these diverse characters.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
I enjoyed examining the impact that memory has on our lives and exploring this theme from a number of different viewpoints. And I had great fun looking at all the changes from 2003 to 2013. You wouldn’t think that much has happened in that timeframe at first glance, but researching, there has been massive changes, especially with the infiltration of social media into most people’s everyday lives. I also loved that Rebecca is an artist and Daniel is a musician – such a joy to write with two of my main characters being creative people, and it was a good excuse to infuse the novel with art and music.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
Nothing straight away, but I ended up having three book events – all of them lovely occasions to meet readers! I always love meeting the people who read my books and appreciate how kind and generous they are about my writing. And it’s always fun when they offer suggestions for my next book. That’s how my last novel, The Paris of the West came about, as readers contacted me wanting a sequel to The Paris of the East.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I’ve read so many fabulous books this year, but if you are after a first class thriller by a local author then you can’t go past The Chinese Proverb by Tina Clough. The plot line is tense and filled with palpable danger, but what I loved the most was the nuanced and growing relationship between the two main protagonists.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m currently doing the edits for a book that Beatnik Publishing will be releasing in August: Everyday Strength: Recipes and Wellbeing Tips for Cancer Patients. I’ve teamed up with the talented food writer and chef, Sam Mannering, to create this book. Both of us have survived cancer, so this is the book we wish we’d had when going through our treatments. Sam has created fabulous recipes that are appropriate for people who aren’t feeling so good. I’ve researched practical suggestions in combatting many common symptoms, in consultation with medical professionals. This is not a book that promises to cure cancer, or to replace treatments by cancer specialists, but is a practical guide on how to make everyday a little better with nutritious recipes and many simple suggestions people can implement easily at home. Sam and I are excited that it will be available this year in NZ, Australia, and the UK.