This week, we were lucky enough to have the chance to chat to Holly Cave, author of the compelling (not to mention unsettling) book The Memory Chamber. It’s received loads of rave reviews in major publications, and we really recommend reading it.
Hi Holly! Thanks for taking part in our Q&A. Let’s start with talking about the main character in The Memory Chamber, Isobel. She’s a ‘Heaven Architect’; who creates artificial ‘heavens’ for her dying clients, based on their memories. It’s such a creative (and rather eerie) idea – where did the concept come from?
I had been wanting to write something about memories and the brain for a long time, led by a strong, female protagonist. One sunny, autumn afternoon, I was walking my dog down the lane, picking blackberries. Everything felt so perfect, and I thought to myself "this is what my heaven would be like." A woman that created artificial heavens came to me there and then, and I knew I could make a novel out of it.
That’s fascinating, that such a spooky idea could come from such a happy experience! You’ve got a background in science and worked in London’s Science Museum for four years – how much did this affect your novel?
In my last two years at the Science Museum, I developed an exhibition about what makes humans so individual, and that was a direct inspiration for the book. As much as I've always loved science, I don't tend to read science fiction, so I never wanted to write that genre of novel. And luckily, so many readers who've loved the book but never read sci-fi weren't put off by its themes.
Without giving too much away, the book features a major twist (which I certainly didn’t see coming) which changes the reader’s perspective of some of the characters. Did you plan this right from the start, or did the characters develop ‘on their own’ in an organic way?
Much to my chagrin, I'm not a great planner. When I started writing The Memory Chamber, I didn't even think it was going to be a thriller! So, yes, it was a fairly organic process, and my characters started doing unexpected things as I typed, which is magical when it happens (and when it works).
Ha, that’s amazing that it didn’t start off as a thriller! There’s a definite bleakness to The Memory Chamber, which is enhanced by the backdrop of the Cold War. What made you decide to position your characters in this threatening, rather dangerous world?
I knew from the start that many of my characters, Isobel especially, would make hard and sometimes questionable decisions. For me, that meant that there had to be some overarching menace in the world that was disturbing their equilibrium and affecting their judgement, and so the quiet, background threat of the cold war came into play.
The book is published by Quercus – what was your journey to publication (and do you have any tips for aspiring authors out there)?
I managed to get an agent for my first novel, The Generation, but for almost two years nothing really happened. It took me a long time to move on and decide to self-publish it, which was an amazing experience. A year later, I had the first draft of The Memory Chamber ready to go and Sue Armstrong at C+W agency - who had previously read The Generation and told me to let her know if I wrote anything else - snapped it up. We worked on it together for about 6 months and then Quercus bought the UK & Commonwealth rights in a four-way auction. It was incredible.
My advice? Remember that creativity takes courage. I still tell myself that every day. No one finds it easy, but the best thing you can do is find your own source of courage, feed it, and let it drive you on towards your dream. It took me a long time just to get to that point of being brave enough to sit down and write what I wanted to write.
What would you say are the best and worst aspects of being a writer?
I both love and hate that it's such a solitary pursuit. I love getting up in the mornings, getting my son off to his childminder, doing a bit of yoga and then sloping off into the spare room with my laptop - badly dressed, no make-up. But when I get out to meet other authors, my publishers and agents, readers, booksellers, then I revel in that too, and wish I got to do more of it.
Yes, it’s definitely a lonely job at times! Are you working on any other books at the moment?
I'm just wrapping up the first complete draft of my next book, which I started back in June last year. It's a post-apocalyptic ode to nature, family and diversity.
Have you read any great books recently? If so, which ones would you recommend that we read?
I love anything that's a bit different. Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists is definitely my favourite book of 2018 so far - her writing is so beautiful and sharply insightful. It really resonated with me. I'm currently lost in Tara Westover's spellbinding memoir Educated, and I can also recommend Nicola Mostyn's debut, The Gods of Love. It's whip-smart and fantastically witty. I'd love to be able to write with such humour - she's a true talent.
Many thanks again to Holly Cave for her great answers. If you’d like to check out The Memory Chamber, you can get yourself a copy here.