The Magic of Literature, Ancestry and Co-authoring: An Interview With Tim Byrne and Emma Dyer, Creators of The Living Memory
Do you ever find yourself loving a book so wholeheartedly that you wished you could dive straight into the author’s head and discover all their inspirations and secrets? I was lucky enough to do just that with Tim Byrne and Emma Dyer, the authors of The Living Memory.
This astounding historical fiction, incorporating time-travel, magical realism and Victorian London, captivated my attention from the very first page. And had captured my heart by the end of it.
Following the stories of present day Io and her 19th-century ancestor, Talia, The Living Memory explores the relationship between where we came from and where we are going. Incorporating historical fact with creative imagination allowed both the present and past worlds to come to life inside the pages of the book, and the characters along with it.
I chatted to the authors about where their ideas came from, their inspirations lay, and their plans for the future of their characters, their writing and themselves.
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DE: The interplay between past and present features very strongly in the book. How did you go about constructing the differences between the historical world and the present? And were there any differences to take into account when creating the historical and present-day characters?
TB: We had to do a lot of careful historical research to bring it to life and the more we looked into subjects the more strange tales we found that really inspired us. Like the story of the astonishing Kilmorey Mausoleum which stands in a closed garden in a quiet part of West London but might have originally been built as a time travel device.
With historical characterisation. We made a decision early on not to try to immerse ourselves in every precise detail of Victorian customs and language. There are books that do an absolutely amazing job of that, one of my favourites is The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Fabre. We wanted to focus on the core theme of finding one’s own true identity and how that affects the choices we make in life.
ED: Living Memory was always planned as the first part of a trilogy of stories, with the second book set in medieval Europe and the third in Ethiopia nearly 3,000 years ago, so even though Talia’s life was very different from Io’s,19th century London seemed like pretty recent history compared with the other two historical worlds we wanted to explore.
We thought a lot about how Io would experience the 19th-century world where she finds herself but we mostly focused on the things that she would understand rather than constantly picking up on the differences. We wanted her to relate to Talia and communicate with her even though it was difficult for them to get on at first, and Talia was understandably hostile since she thought that she was being haunted by an evil spirit. But eventually, they found a way through those differences rather than being completely overwhelmed by them.
DE: Is your own ancestry something that is important to you both?
ED: Funny you should ask that! Last year I took one of those DNA tests that claims to trace your ancestry. I was really hoping that the results would be interesting because I only really know about my Welsh and English heritage but I wasn’t disappointed, there was Irish, Scandinavian, Spanish, Iranian and even native American in the mix. I was thrilled! I don’t know how accurate the test was but it was really inspiring to think that my own story had taken so many different paths.
TB: I’m fascinated by how much we don’t know about who we’re descended from but I find it liberating not to know. Like our narrator in the book, it might be something very unexpected.
DE: Both Io and Talia are very relatable characters and provide the reader with an accessible entryway into the story. How did their character creation come about? And where did the decision to feature two teenage girls stem from?
TB: I have worked in schools with a lot of gifted and talented children and many of them saw the world in subtly different ways from other people. Young people who have unusual abilities can easily be misunderstood and being praised for very specific talents can lead people to be trapped in careers that don’t necessarily suit them. This doesn’t lead to good things in the long term. Just because you happen to be good at something, that doesn’t mean that you have to build your life around it, I think that’s something I felt strongly about saying.
ED: Originally, Talia was going to be quite a bit older but as she developed as a character it seemed right that she should only be a couple of years older than Io. In terms of life-experience, she is so much more mature and self-reliant than Io, though not necessarily by choice. One of the themes that we wanted to bring out was that search for identity that really gets going when you are in your teens and start to define yourself in relation to people outside your immediate family. Io is trying out being a piano prodigy but that isn’t really working for her, though she thinks it is for a while, but by the end of the story she realises that she doesn’t have to continue down that path just because she started along it. There’s so much pressure to decide what you’re going to study, to do for a job when you’re a teenager and it’s so easy to go in the wrong direction and then think you can’t change just because other people are over-invested in your choices. I really admire Io for letting go of that in the last chapters of the book even though it feels really hard to disappoint people who wanted you to ‘succeed’ in that way. I think we both had to make very similar choices like that in our lives and choose between something that we were ‘good at’ or something we loved to do.
DE: The magic system in the book is a very unique one. How did the idea behind this come about?
ED: That is all down to Tim! He explained the idea to me very carefully until I understood it.
TB: When I was studying I became a little obsessed with a book called The Art of Memory by Francis Yates that was about how scholars used to routinely memorise entire books word for word using charts and diagrams to fix things in their minds creating virtual worlds inside their own thoughts. Nowadays we create virtual worlds using technology and we don’t have to remember anything, only what to search for. We could have written it as Science Fiction and used technology to create the magical systems that are used in the book but that could seem dated very quickly and we wanted to write something that would go deeper.
DE: If you could wield your own magical powers what would they be, and why?
TB: Having thought about unusual abilities a lot, I think it’s hard not be defined by the powers that find in ourselves so I’m not sure I’d accept a magical power without a lot of thinking it through, it could really get in the way of exploring what I find interesting.
ED: I don’t think I’d want to go back or forward in time. I’d love to be able to cast a spell to diffuse anger. Anger is such a natural emotion but also so destructive and I know that when I’m angry, I just can’t think straight. This magic power would just stop disagreements escalating, whether it was road rage or a potential nuclear war. It feels as though we’re (globally) deeply divided at the moment and even though getting rid of anger wouldn’t stop problems from happening, it would certainly make it easier to talk about them.
DE: This book is marketed for both children and adults. What is it that will appeal to both of these age ranges?
TB: We wanted it to be accessible and to speak to as many people as possible. We’ve found older readers really enjoyed the later sections of the book, especially the sense of looking into another world and exploring different ways of thinking about it.
Younger readers have tended to focus more on the characters and the decisions that they face, often identifying with being pushed into making decisions they weren’t sure about. We really wanted to talk to both those groups of people.
ED: Hopefully, the story will appeal equally to both. We definitely imagined that girls would enjoy it more than boys when we finished writing it, but we’ve had some fantastic reviews from boys (and men) so who knows!
DE: I found the front cover very intriguing. What made you choose this photo and what is the significance of it, in relation to the text?
ED: We started with the idea of the face of a girl looking out at the reader. We started by searching for a painting but we had some problems with copyright and had to abandon that idea. Then Tim discovered the photograph of a young girl from the 1850s in North America. We don’t know her name but the image was really startling. Tim, who is an amazing designer, blended the image to make it slightly more modern, as if the two characters met in that one body.
TB: The girl on the front cover is an anonymous photograph portrait from 1850 from the Getty archive. We wanted the readers to feel the sense of an intense authentic presence looking at them out of the past.
DE: Were there any books, fiction or non-fiction, that helped you manifest this book?
ED: For me, the most direct influence was the work of children’s authors who were writing in the 1960s and 70s, which seems to have been quite a magical time for children’s fiction. I love books like Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer and Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. But there are also so many other authors who don’t necessarily write about magic or time travel but who also have a magical quality to their writing, like Vikram Seth, Kazio Ishiguro or Banana Yoshimoto who allow you to enter into their universe and become completely lost in their words and their stories.
DB: I see you draw influence from a number of prolific authors, from Neil Gaiman to George Eliot. What is it about these authors that captivates you? What did you, if anything, draw from their own literature that helped you in the creation of your own?
ED: I am most often captivated by authors who have a really strong sense of an imaginative world and that give their readers a complete sense of trust in their vision. I also love it when their characters speak to each other and speak to us too, so that you get drawn in more and more deeply as the book progresses. But I don’t mind whether the setting is a small town, like My Antonia: Willa Cather, or the vastness of nineteenth century Russia, like Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. If the characters are strongly drawn and deep then I’m in!
TB: I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman among others, for me his stories always seem to focus on capturing something abstract and giving it enough form for it to be explored. Like in the Sandman series where he gives Dream, Death, Destiny and others a character of their own and then explores what that might be. What he does is very grand and I love the ambition of that.
DE: How did the decision to co-author come about and how did you define your division of labour?
TB: In my experience trust makes everything possible and working with Emma was an absolute delight. I think that creating something is like solving a series of riddles and each time you solve one it leaves you with another. If you commit to working with someone else then they can redefine or challenge the whole thing when you get stuck. Everything about the way we worked was like a conversation, we took turns at each stage of the process to create several drafts until the book seemed to come to life and declare itself done. Then it started taking over other people’s lives, like the amazing family and friends who helped us bring it together.
ED: When we first met, we talked about books and writing all of the time and we still do, though now we also talk about films and TV too. I don’t remember a single moment when we decided to write together, although there must have been one. But Tim was writing short stories and had already written a novel whereas I was writing essays and dissertations, so I followed him into writing fiction.
We talk a lot before a single word is written and I mean a lot! That’s where we plan everything and talk about the characters. Then Tim will write a first draft and I will edit and then he will rewrite and I will re-edit until we’re both happy. We do a lot of rewriting and perhaps that wouldn’t happen so much if we weren’t co-authors but I think it makes the writing better.
DE: Do you have any solo projects aligned for the future?
ED: I have to finish my PhD thesis! But no, we’re only planning to write together.
DE: Do you have any future plans to work with each other again?
ED: Yes, we have started working on the second book in the trilogy.
TB: Living Memory sequels were planned from the start but they take a long time so we’re working on it!