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Little Willow

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Interview: Loretta Ellsworth

Loretta Ellsworth, author of In Search of Mockingbird and In a Heartbeat, dropped by Bildungsroman this morning to talk about her newest book, Unforgettable. We discussed the love of a good book, the love of family, the concept of memory, and The Great Gatsby, among other things. Listen in:

What came first, the main character of Unforgettable or the basic premise? How did the story develop in your mind?

I'd read an article about people who have amazing biographical memories and I wondered how it would be to grow up with one, so the premise came first. I first wrote the story in third person but my main character came across as very stilted, almost autistic, which he isn't supposed to be, so I rewrote it in the first person in order to get into his head and discover his character.

How much research into "perfect memory" and synesthesia did you do before (or while) you wrote the first draft? How did writing or researching this book differ from your previous works?

As with all my books, I do a great deal of research as the book develops. I did a lot of research on synesthesia as it relates to memory and on people who supposedly have 'perfect memories' and found that it doesn't actually exist – no one has been proven to have a perfect memory. I do research before and during my writing – often my stories lead me to do more research. Taconite mining somehow worked its way into the story and I had to do a great deal of research on that as well.

Which of your five senses do you think you use the most? Which do you value the most?

I have a son who has been blind since birth so I think about the sense of sight a great deal – it's always on my mind because he
lives at home and I have to guide him every day, so I depend on my sight for him. I'm so glad he has good hearing because he loves music and I realize how important that sense has been to him, too, and how rich it has made his life.

It sounds like your home is a happy one.

My love for the book The Great Gatsby knows no bounds. You weave allusions to it throughout your story. What inspired you to put F. Scott Fitzgerald on Baxter's radar?

It started out as merely a means to get Baxter and Halle together – an English assignment she could help him with. But as I reread The Great Gatsby, I realized how much Gatsby and Baxter had in common, and in subsequent drafts I made more use of that and used Gatsby as a reflection of Baxter's journey, and perhaps a warning of what could happen.

When Baxter and Halle talk about the character of Jay Gatsby, Halle says he's a scoundrel, but Baxter calls him a victim. Whose point of view most resembles yours?

He's both. Gatsby can be seen as a tragic victim because he's motivated by love, but he uses corrupt methods to achieve his wealth. He makes Daisy into an obsession, an idealistic dream, and he believes that with enough wealth he can control his destiny and buy her back, but it ends up that she isn't really for sale and that she's not deserving of his love. The fact that he never gives up on his dream makes him seem more victim than scoundrel, or perhaps it's because the other characters are so much worse that he seems the lesser evil.

Baxter sometimes feels as if his extraordinary memory is a curse to him, but it can also be a blessing. Did you possess a talent or passion as a teenager that felt like both a blessing and a curse? If so, what was it, and how did you deal with it?

The only talent I had when I was younger was that I was a fast runner. In eighth grade the fastest boy in our class challenged me to a race. I accepted and beat him. I thought it would bring me some respect, but it was just the opposite – the boys hated me for it and the girls thought I was too much of a tomboy. It wasn't until I was older and joined track in high school that my talent became an asset.

Your book came out in September, the same month that the CBS premiered a series with the same title, Unforgettable. The main character on that show (Carrie Wells, played by Poppy Montgomery, one of my favorite contemporary actresses) is a detective who has hyperthymesia, a superior autobiographical memory. What career do you think Baxter will have when he grows up?

I don't know what career he will have. He'd be great at science or math or any number of occupations, but I do think Baxter will embrace his memory in whatever career he pursues.

Typing the word "Unforgettable" over and over in this piece has caused me to start sing the popular song written by Irving Gordon. Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer the quiet?

I've always led a busy life – I worked as a teacher and raised four active children so I learned to write in small segments wherever I was – at soccer practices, at home with the TV blaring in another room, etc. I still write that way – at busy coffee shops, at the library, at home with numerous noises; dog barking, my son's music playing, and once in a great while, absolute quiet. I find that all of them inspire me in some ways, and sometimes annoy me as well.

When considering the protagonists of your books - Evie from The Shrouding Woman, Erin from In Search of Mockingbird, Eagan and Amelia from In a Heartbeat, and now Baxter Green from Unforgettable - do you find a trait they share, a commonality? Do you try to infuse all of your main characters with this trait, be it a conscious choice or something you weren't aware of until I asked you?

I'm not aware of any commonality but I'm working on a new book – a post-apocalyptic one that I told my agent was a departure from my other books. When she read it she agreed that it was different, but that my protagonist has a physical quality making her different and complicating her life, which has been an ongoing theme in my work. This is something I didn't see myself until she pointed it out.

Best of luck with your work-in-progress!

I would bet that most everyone has something they'd like to remember - and something they'd like to forget. I find the concepts of memory and knowledge so intriguing. It's strange to think that it can be boiled down to science. It's strange to think about thinking, isn't it?

Yes, there is so much yet to learn about memory. My great aunt died of Alzheimer's and I'm constantly worried about losing my own memory. But remembering everything would be a different problem altogether.

I'm so sorry for your loss.

What do you hope people take away from reading Unforgettable?

I hope they enjoy Baxter's story of a boy who discovers that in order to fit in he has to embrace who he is. It's not an easy thing to do – it's something I've worked at my entire life.


To celebrate the release of Unforgettable, Loretta is giving away a Nook at her website – just post a comment about your earliest memory and you're entered to win. The giveaway ends October 6th.

Watch the Unforgettable trailer.

Read an excerpt of Unforgettable.

Visit Loretta's website. (Please say hello to the kitten on her bio page.)

Read my interview with Loretta from 2010.

Follow Loretta's 2011 blog tour:
September 26th: The Booksmugglers
September 27th: Emily's Reading Room
September 28th: Frenetic Reader
September 29th: Mother Daughter Book Club
September 30th: YA Bliss
October 2nd: Books Are My Love
October 3rd: The Story Siren
October 4th: Bildungsroman
October 5th: Ravishing Reads
Tags: blog tour, books, gatsby, interviews

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