The Intel: Deborah Bee
The Blog Tour for Deborah Bee’s startling debut The Last Thing I Remember starts right here, right now, at Crime Thriller Fella. Deborah’s debut is a twisty tale of two women: Sarah is in a coma. She was mugged. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She didn’t deserve any of it. She’s a nice girl from a nice family. She’s a victim. That’s what they say. Kelly is in the waiting room. She’s just a kid. A typical schoolgirl. Bullied a bit, probably. She doesn’t know anything. That’s what they say. So why is she there? Why does she keep turning up? Can Sarah remember what happened to her, and work out who is it that keeps coming into her room at night?
Published in ebook next week by Twenty7 - with the paperback to follow in July - The Last Thing I Remember has already been snapped up by the telly people. Deborah’s background is in fashion. She’s worked at various magazines and newspapers including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Times and the Guardian as a fashion writer and editor, and she’s currently a Creative Director in luxury retail.
In this terrific intel interview, Deborah gives us the lowdown on her women protags, Locked-In Syndrome and why to avoid top-stitching.
Tell us about Sarah and Kelly…
From the start, Sarah is our victim – unable to move, see, keep herself alive without life-support, but she can hear. She has Locked-in Syndrome. Kelly is a sassy 14 year-old who looks like a geek. Sarah has no history that she can remember, not even her own name. Kelly knows what’s what, but no one bothers to ask her, because she’s a kid. And she looks like a geek. They have an unusual relationship that unfolds as Sarah starts to remember, and as the police are called in to investigate Sarah’s mugging and the murder of her husband – something Sarah only discovers through overhearing conversations between her family and the medical team.
The publishing team seem to focus on Sarah. The TV company looking at turning the story into a 3 part drama (don’t hold your breath – these things apparently take ages) is more interested in Kelly.
The Last Thing I Remember has got a terrific high-concept hook – where did you get the inspiration?
I didn’t start out with anything high-concept. I just wanted to tell a story and the only way to maintain interest for a character in a coma, was to have a dual narrative, with two protagonists. It was only afterwards when I read up on the ‘rules of writing fiction’ that I realised that it was an unusual approach. It was a massively complicated structure. I got lost all the time. I had to do charts and all sorts just to make sure I hadn’t given away too much. And I had to rewrite Kelly’s dialogue to make her voice sound entirely the opposite of Sarah’s.
What kind of research did you do for Sarah’s condition?
I read every book I could find on real-life experiences of comas and Locked In Syndrome. Many of them are not particularly well-read books – but they are written from the heart, which is what I needed. I also watched a load of Emergency Room fly-on-the-wall style documentaries, which show a truer picture of intensive care situations than hospital dramas, and the way relatives try to cope. The proper medical research is evolving all the time.
The latest research is getting volunteers to sleep and dream while monitoring brain activity. When the volunteers wakes up they are asked what they were dreaming about so that the scientists can match the areas of activity in the brain with places, objects and emotions. They hope to use the research to increase the possibility of communicating with Locked In Syndrome patients.
Why are readers so fascinated by characters who have amnesia?
I guess we are all shaped by our experiences and rely on them to make choices. It was even part of Blade Runner – when the Rachael character who was a replicant was given false memories in order to make her feel more human.
The novel is a long way from fashion journalism, do you ever imagine yourself setting a crime novel in the ruthless world of couture?
I’m not sure I agree that the world of couture is ruthless. The fashion industry can be pretty competitive, but the actual ‘couture’ is done by amazing artisans in tiny rooms dotted around Paris. They are usually devoted to their art. There’s definitely something in the fashion world though. I’ll dedicate the book to you if I ever come up with a good story.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Writing is all about confidence. If you believe in yourself then you can keep going for all those thousands of words. There’s a massive temptation to tell everyone about it or worse still, get them to read it – and then suffer their criticisms going round and round your head. The first person to read my book was my agent. When she said she liked it, I gave it to my husband to read. My son is in the middle of it now. If he says he hates it, I can live with it. Although, clearly I’ll be devastated.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
I love a great story so my favourites are the ones that everyone loves – sorry to be boring. I think John Irving weaves a great tale – A Prayer for Owen Meany has the best twist at the end that takes you right back to the beginning. I like circular stories like that. J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is similarly circular. I think a clever structure can make a novel – Pierre Choderlos de Lacios’ Dangerous Liaisons is told through letters between two hugely manipulative characters.
Paula Hawkins Girl on a Train has the most brilliant unreliable witness. Nora Ephron’s Heartburn makes you laugh and cry at the same time – it’s an autobiographical account of the breakdown of the author’s marriage and she somehow makes it funny. F.Scott Fitzgerald is a bit of a hero – The Great Gatsby is perfect – a protagonist who is not what he makes out – love that.
Give me some advice about writing…
Never forget who your audience is. Never forget that they don’t have to read it – you have to entertain them. Don’t try to sound cleverer than you are. Never start a paragraph with the weather (courtesy of Oscar Wilde – “Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”) Go easy on exclamation marks (Elmore Leonard). And finally from my fashion journalism tutor at Central St Martins, Felicity Green – “If you find yourself describing pleats or top-stitching – you know you’re in trouble.”
What’s next for you?
I have two stories that I’m working on. Both are waiting for some time off for me to decide which one to go ahead with first. One is commercial – an easier read than The Last Thing I Remember, the other is difficult – a psychological thriller full of time lapses and flashbacks. The difficult one is easier to write. Weird but true. More my style.
Published by Twenty7, the ebook of The Last Thing I Remember comes out next Thursday, March 3rd.