An Interview with Sam Taylor
Author of The Amnesiac
Sam Taylor, whose second novel, The Amnesiac was published in the US in June 2008 by Penguin. Guy Savage of MostlyFiction.com talks with Sam Taylor about his book, amnesia, and his forthcoming novels.
SAM: The Amnesiac is the story of James Purdew, a 30-year-old Englishman who lives in Amsterdam with his Dutch girlfriend Ingrid. Their life appears simple and happy until, one day during the summer of the great heatwave, James breaks a bone in his ankle. With his leg in a plastercast, and his relationship with Ingrid slowly disintegrating, James becomes quietly obsessed with his own past — in particular three years of his life, which seem to have disappeared from his memory.
So James travels back to the city of H. where he lived during those lost years, and finds a familiar house, now derelict. Stripping the wallpaper from one of the rooms, James discovers the first chapter of Confessions of a Killer, a Victorian thriller which seems to offer clues to a tragedy that took place in the house years before – and which is possibly connected to the missing years in James’s life.
MF: Some authors set out to write a popular potboiler. What did you set out to do with THE AMNESIAC? Did you have a particular audience in mind?
SAM: I’ve never written a book with a particular audience in mind, as I have no idea about (or interest in) the demographics of readerships etc. I write books that I, as a reader, would want to read. In the case of The Amnesiac, I wanted to write a detective story because I love reading them. I do tend to feel disappointed when I come to the end of mystery novels, though, because what I enjoy is the mystery, rather than the solution. So I tried to write a novel in which the mystery remains after you’ve finished reading. It’s not wholly unresolved, as many loose ends are brought together, but when you think through what’s happened, you realise there are elements you don’t understand, or which seem not quite to connect. I can think of a few novels – notably Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy – which haunted me like this; and they were both influences on The Amnesiac. I think the key to this is that this book is very personal and autobiographical. Everything in it has a personal significance, even if that significance is not immediately apparent to the reader.
MF: How did your experiences with amnesia influence your writing?
SAM: It would be an exaggeration to say I really suffered from amnesia, but there is a period in my past, lasting about six months, of which I remember very little. I recall places, faces, names, and something of the general mood. But in terms of events, I have memories of only two or three, whereas for the three-month period following this, I have perhaps twenty or thirty. As with James, my blank period took place while I was a student at university. It was the realisation (many years later) of how little I recalled from this period that provided the initial seeds of the book. Specifically, it got me thinking more generally about memory. And the more I compared those "lost" months to other months that I did remember, the more I came to realise that my amnesia was merely a question of degree. The more I thought about memory, the more I doubted its existence. Certain mornings, particularly after a heavy night’s drinking, I had the impression that my brain was scrambling to retrieve even the smallest fragments of the night before and to fit them into some kind of chronological order. In many cases, I felt like I had to decide what must have happened, based on very little evidence at all. And if that were true of a single night, whose events were separated from me only by eight hours’ sleep, how much more true must it be of events a year, or five years, or ten years, in the past? This insight had a powerful effect on me. I felt as if my own life were slipping through my fingers, vanishing second by second into oblivion.
MF: People who’ve had periods of amnesia are sometimes obsessive about memories. After recognizing a period in your past that remains murky, do you find that you now try to record or in some way maintain a record of your life?
SAM: Like my protagonist, I have kept a diary from the age of about 15. Unlike him, I didn’t keep that diary during my years at university, so I have no way of verifying those lost months. But to answer the question, yes, I do feel the need to try and record the passing days – simply as a way of holding on to the threads of my life.
MF: In a way picking up and moving to France and creating a new life seems to feed in to the idea of amnesia—not that you’ve forgotten everything that you left behind, of course, but you have, in essence, created an entirely different life for yourself and your family. Any comments on that?
SAM: It’s an interesting question, but I’m not sure how to answer it, other than saying that – yes, in a way, you are right. Moving away from England was a form of escape; and an escape not only from my job and my home country, but also from my past. Paradoxically, however, I think this tends to make you remember the past, rather than forget it. I couldn’t write about England until I’d left it.
MF: You were a journalist for the Observer before becoming a full-time novelist. Without external deadlines to meet, how did you discipline yourself to produce writing on a regular basis?
SAM: People always ask me this, but I honestly didn’t have to. I can only write when my children are at school, and in France that means only four days a week. So my writing time here has always been precious, and I’ve never felt tempted to waste it. I do tend to write fewer words than I used to, however: on my first novel, The Republic of Trees, I was writing 2,500 words a day; I’m now happy with 1,500. I usually try to take the whole summer off, so I start again in September feeling hungry and refreshed.
MF: Do you identify at all with the novel’s protagonist, James Purdew?
SAM: Yes and no. The Amnesiac is a what-if novel about my life, so in that sense James Purdew is a what-if version of me. He’s also a former version of me. People change as they age – that’s one of the book’s themes – and many of the ideas and questions that torture James no longer have the same effect on me. Although that may be because I exorcised those demons by writing the book.
MF: At times, THE AMNESIAC assumes Kafkaesque tones. Any thoughts on that?
SAM: I love Kafka. The Castle, in particular, was one of the main inspirations for The Amnesiac. It’s a novel about the horror of hope, in the same way that The Trial is a novel about the horror of fear. I’m also very fond of the deadpan humour and flashes of surrealistic action that you get in Kafka.
MF: If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that you enjoy books with a philosophical bent. Am I correct? What are you reading at the moment?
SAM: Yes, but not exclusively. Actually the book I’ve just started – Philip K Dick’s Valis – is explicitly philosophical; as is the novel I’ve just finished, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. They are both also science fiction of a kind, but that doesn’t mean that I only ever read philosophical novels or SF novels. I’ve just discovered James Ellroy, for example, so I’m planning to read all his books this summer.
MF: What sort of research did you do on amnesia for this book?
SAM: I read a lot of books and did a lot of thinking.
MF: Your blog mentions that you’ve written three books, but I can only find The Republic of Trees and The Amnesiac. Tell us about the third book.
SAM: My third novel, The Island at the End of the World, will be published in the UK in January, and in the US next summer, I think. It’s set on an island in the near future, apparently after a great flood. Of the three books I’ve written, it’s the one I’m happiest with.
MF: The acknowledgment page at the end of the novel is titled “Thanks for the memories” and is arranged alphabetically beginning with Tim Adams. I have to ask you this: I see Adam Ant’s name on the list. How did he contribute to the novel?
SAM: That page is just a list of all the people in my memory banks. Adam & the Ants were the first pop group I loved (I was eleven) so they marked me in some deep, unfathomable way. Even now, the look of that white stripe across his nose and/or the sound of the drum intro to Kings of the Wild Frontier brings back inexpressible but very vivid memories of being a child again.
MF: Your blog features a photograph of two women stepping into a river. For some reason in spite of the tranquility of the water, the photo is oddly disturbing. Tell us about this photograph and why you selected it for the blog.
SAM: That photograph is the cover of the UK paperback version of my first book, The Republic of Trees.
In Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (based on the Phillip Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Replicants are superior due to their implanted memories. How much do you think memory contributes to who we are as human beings?
SAM: Perhaps my memory of the film (and/or the book) is faulty, but I thought the replicants were considered inferior because their memories were implanted, rather than real? In other words, a real memory is what makes us human. I love PKD’s books, and a big part of the reason for that is his obsession with the importance (and, simultaneously, the untrustworthiness) of memories.
MF: What’s next?
SAM: I’ve just finished writing a children’s book – my first – called Jake and the Slumberbeast. I need to try and find a publisher for that, and then in September I’ll begin writing my fourth novel. It’s based on real historical characters and events, and I’ve been researching it for over a year now. I’m very excited about it.
MF: Sounds great! Thanks for you time.
Read our review of THE AMNESIAC at MostlyFiction.com