We enjoyed the opportunity to chat with Bethany Morrow about her novel MEM. A truly unique novel written from the perspective of a person's single memory, MEM asks hard questions about who we are and what it means to be human.
This is your debut novel. Was there anything unexpectedly challenging or rewarding in the publishing process?
In the categories of both challenging and rewarding, I would say how the process becomes collaborative and interactive. Rewarding because it is absolutely awe-inspiring to have multiple (!) people connect with and understand something you’ve written down. It takes me back to discussing language and cognition in university, and the absolute miracle communication really is. And challenging because then those same people want to hear what you have to say about the thing you’ve written, and have beautiful assumptions about how or why, and you must disappoint them or else say honestly sometimes that you have no idea what you’ve written!
MEM is set in 1920s Montreal, Canada. Why did you choose that particular setting?
There are a couple of reasons why the story takes place in the 20s. In no particular order: because so much of the beauty of present day Montreal, the Montreal I engage with was built during that time; because along with the physical building of the Montreal skyline, so many historical events, and to be honest traumas or tragedies happened … and I think we recognize the way those two things, innovation and trauma, are often connected; because it wasn’t until the Persons Case of 1929 that women were legally recognized as “persons” in Canada, and I wanted that peripherally in Elsie’s world and story.
MEM is, in part, an allegory for the Montreal slave trade. Why did you choose to address this topic through allegory? Did this approach present any unique challenges?
That MEM can be interpreted as an allegory for the omitted/denied existence of the Montreal slave trade is not something I dispute, because I was aware of that history and had researched it for other reasons prior to writing this novel, and because of course enslavement and personhood are themes depicted and explored in MEM, but I didn’t think of it before or surrounding the writing or conceptualizing of Elsie’s story, at all. I think it’s a fair and important conversation, but I can’t take credit for addressing something that I didn’t intentionally address, and had I, I think the story would be much more brutal, as slavery is.
The viewpoint character, Elsie, is herself a memory. Was there anything particularly challenging about writing from that perspective?
I think writing from Elsie’s pov is the only worthwhile entry point into this story, because her being a memory, and being a memory that defies convention, makes her the most interesting person in this world. Her consciousness allowed me to tell everyone else’s story as well, and so I guess the most challenging part of writing from that perspective was how to reveal all the stories in orbit around her.
Throughout the book, there is a question deftly implied about who we are without our worst memories. Was that a daunting question to address?
It was a question that had to be answered in the investigation of Elsie’s character, that much I know. The answer reached in the novel isn’t meant to be prescriptive or a moral absolute, but I do find that I believe it. I had to believe it on some level in order to understand what Elsie would and would not do, because there’s a level of conviction that impacts her life and circumstances. It isn’t a conclusion I’d reached before conceptualizing the story, and sometimes I wonder if it comes across that way. Elsie just happens to be a very convincing woman.
The twist at the end surprised me. Did you know all along that was how the book would end or did it come to you along the way?
I don’t think I knew at the earliest onset, but soon after, maybe. I didn’t know the language that you find there, but I knew more so emotionally where she would end up, where the story would leave her.
Here at The Reading Women, we’re all about women authors. Who are some female authors that inspire you?
Toni Morrison. Octavia Butler. Tayari Jones. Zora Neale Hurston. Their words and their prose.
You’ve already announced a YA novel coming out from Tor Teen. Can you tell us a little bit about that and any other projects you have going on?
My YA novel is scheduled for a Winter 2020 release and is a contemporary fantasy about two (literally) magical Black sisters living in a Portland, Oregon, where only Black women are sirens anymore, and the fallout of that is that sirens are feared and despised. One of the girls is a secret siren, and the other is a cosplay mermaid slowly realizing she’s also … something else. It’s about the magic of Black sisterhood, in a world overrun by misogynoir, and what it means to use your voice when your voice is often used against you.
I’m working on another project that has to do with activism, also for the young adult market, and I am so very impatiently waiting to be able to speak more about that!
A California native, Bethany C. Morrow spent six years living in Montreal, Quebec. Her speculative literary fiction uses a focus on character and language to engage with, comment on and investigate worlds not unlike our own. MEM is her debut novel. She currently resides in upstate New York.
MEM is out from Unnamed Press on May 22nd.