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Local Debuts First Novel

The Memory Thief Launch party w/Emily Colin
August 25th, 6 p.m.
DREAMS • 901 Fanning St.

WRITER RE-BORN: Emily Colin, interested in writing from youth, finally achieves her creative dream in ‘The Memory Thief.’ Courtesy photo

When Emily Colin was 7 years old, she watched TV with her father only during episodes of “Star Trek.” Otherwise, she wasn’t allowed to spend endless hours in front of the boob tube. The otherworldly renderings of Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk inspired her to create an action-filled plot for her first book, “The Bloddy Monster: The Brave Monster Who Killed the World.”

“‘Bloddy’ translates as ‘Bloody,’” Colin clarifies with laughter. “It was a fine piece of literature, complete with illustrations; I was very proud of it. I wrote the text in black ink and colored ‘Bloddy’ a vibrant, descriptive red—just in case there was any doubt as to his essential nature.”

While cleaning her parents’ home a few years ago, she came across and reread it. “Oy vey! If my son wrote something like that, we’d be hightailing it for the psychologist at the first available opportunity,” she notes. “But, hey, everyone’s got to start somewhere!”

It would be many years, lots of education and one child later until Colin would go back to the imaginary world of writing, filled with characters who would consume her mind and places that would beckon her away from reality. Having double majored at Duke and receiving a BA in psychology and literature/media studies, along with receiving her MS in family studies and a youth development concentration from Kansas State University, Colin was writing in a much different fashion in her career. At DREAMS Center for Arts Education, her assistant director gig dictates grant writing, copywriting newsletters, doing annual reports, websites and PR materials. She stepped away from the position and in 2008 was working in freelance editorial, specifically with a real-estate marketing company. “Working for them gave me the freedom to structure my own time, which was fantastic,” she notes.

Then she read a memoir by a married woman who lost her husband in a climbing accident in the Himalayan mountainside. “He died in an avalanche,” Colin says, “and not during a particularly difficult or tricky climb—just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The story had her pondering the motivations of someone who endures such challenging and even dangerous hobbies and/or careers. “The English mountaineer, George Mallory, when asked why he climbed Mount Everest, famously (and, allegedly, it ought to be noted) replied, ‘Because it’s there.’ This seems like such a simple, reductive thing to say—but it’s also, I would imagine, at the heart of any explorer’s motivation: curiosity, pure and simple.”

The same curiosity led Colin down a path of creating a fictitious love-story, packed with action, mystery and especially thought-provoking exchanges in her debut novel, “The Memory Thief.” It follows a climber, his loving wife and son, and best friends through dual worlds of chaos. In his wake, readers are left to decipher the protagonist’s afterlife and where it’s leading.

Two years ago Ballantine/Random House bought “The Memory Thief.” Its official release was earlier in the week, but its local celebration takes off Saturday, August 25th. Colin will give a reading at DREAMS at 6 p.m., and Pomegranate Books will be there to sell copies first hand. We spoke with the author about her work and its grueling process.

encore (e): So how long did it actually take to finish this project?
Emily Colin (EC): It took me nine months to write the first draft, another four months of intense revision, and then nine months to find an agent, during which time I wrote and revised some more—at one point, restructuring the entire storyline. It took my agent, Felicia Eth, approximately six weeks to sell the book to Ballantine/Random House in November of 2010.

e: How would you say the process has gone? What’s been most challenging and gratifying?
EC: It was hard work, for sure, but so much fun, and so incredibly exciting. I had a few big challenges—figuring out how to write a novel, for one, and balancing all of the demands on my time, for another. I spent the first nine months of 2009 in a blur of activity—taking two classes for my master’s program in youth development, freelancing for DREAMS and my other clients, and being a mom to my four-year-old son when he wasn’t in preschool. Through it all, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more.

I had no idea what I was doing. In college, I’d taken one creative-writing class, in which the professor and I were spectacularly incompatible. I crept away from the class with the unmistakable feeling that my literary tastes were suspect and my judgment worse. I didn’t write again creatively for a long time. But there I was, bound and determined to finish this novel nonetheless. I gave myself a year.

I got 120 pages under my belt and stalled, bewildered. Then I found a UCLA Writer’s Extension and Caroline Leavitt’s novel-writing class, which was a boon. Caroline was the first person to see “The Memory Thief,” in all of its first-draft, awkward glory, and her enthusiasm for it meant a lot. Thus bolstered, I kept writing, even though the market was crashing around me and my freelance opportunities were evaporating with alarming rapidity. I wrote while my son napped and when I was supposed to be studying; on planes and in coffee shops; on napkins at restaurants. I wandered around in a haze, bumping into objects that existed in the real world because all I could see was my imaginary landscape, the one where my characters lived.

Once I had the finished manuscript in hand, I had to embark upon the search for an agent, which was incredibly challenging—and I found out that my manuscript wasn’t so finished after all! Seeing the book find a home first with a literary agent and then with a publisher has been astounding. Having folks read the advance copies and tell me that it speaks to them, that they couldn’t put it down, means more to me than anything.

e: Tell me about your characters: who you love most, what qualities you feel are most intriguing about them and how you fleshed them out and interconnected them.
EC: I’ll be honest here and say that my favorite character is J.C., maybe because I can’t help but root for the underdog. They’re all flawed people, but they’re doing their best to make good choices in a less-than-stellar situation. They have doubts, but they persevere nonetheless, which I admire. They’re not afraid to take risks, and they all want lives that surpass the ordinary. They don’t settle.

The first time through, Nicholas had far fewer scenes, and there were actually five [narrators, one for each new chapter]—Aidan, Maddie and Nicholas, plus Gabe and J.C. As much as I got a kick out of telling the story from the latter two perspectives, in the end it seemed too overwhelming to prospective readers. Though I was sad to see Gabe and J.C. go as narrators, I think having told the story from their vantage points gave me a clearer sense of their desires and motivations.

e: Would you classify this a suspenseful, full-of-action love story?
EC: In 30 seconds or less, I’d probably tell you that it was a blend of high-altitude mountaineering, a love story, a ghost story and a mystery … so you weren’t too far off the mark! Early on, one of my closest friends called the book “beach reading for smart people.” I loved this turn of phrase so much, I never forgot it—and when I’m called upon to assign the book’s genre, I often trot it out. In my query letters to agents, I always said “The Memory Thief” bridged the gap between literary and commercial fiction—which is just a fancy way of saying “beach reading for smart people.” . . . Basically, you can think of it as one of those really fancy chocolate bars, like Vosges or Divine. It’s a decadent indulgence, with substance to match.

It’s] about following your dreams, having faith in what you believe, and being willing to take chances when the situation warrants it. These themes are timeless.

e: Is another book already in the making?
EC: I have indeed finished book two—after a few months of substantial revisions, it is now with my agent. Now, I am busy biting my nails and waiting to hear what she thinks. It’s not a sequel to “The Memory Thief,” precisely, but a few mysteries are unraveled—and some familiar characters will make a re-appearance. And I think that’s all I have to say about that!

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