Our protagonist Washington (“Wash” to his friends, or so they tell him) has had all of his episodic memories wiped away, but I’m assuming that the same hasn’t happened to you. Could you tell us what you remember about the inspiration for this story? Was there a specific spark, or have you always been interested in memory and identity?
I’ve always been fascinated with memory and identity. What makes me me? That wasn’t the spark for this story, though. I wanted to write a story about the criminal justice system. A story about some future system of punishment that would render prisons a relic of the past. A story set in a society that would view the very notion of imprisonment as utterly barbaric. That was the spark. I couldn’t think of any way to do it, though. I was living in Ireland—and had just visited the museum at Kilmainham Gaol, a beautiful old prison built in the eighteenth century—when an idea finally came to me. In my notebook, I jotted down this note: “a society where instead of being imprisoned, criminals have their memories wiped, for minor crimes, a recent year or two, for major crimes your entire life, and then have to begin again . . . The story follows a man working on a farm with other laborers who can’t remember anything. He is told his memory was wiped because of a crime he committed, but he doesn’t know what it was, or who he was, or why he did it.” Obviously some details changed as the story evolved, but that was the moment the spark caught some tinder.
It’s hard to ignore that the protagonist’s name is “Washington.” His heritage is partly Native American, but he’s better characterized as a blue-collar worker, patriarch of the nuclear family, and a lover of hunting and guns. Despite his past crimes, Washington seems to be well-intentioned, although his legacy of neglect and cruelty is still visible in his daughter’s lingering spite and his son’s fear, even though present day Washington doesn’t understand why they feel this way. Given that, there’s a way to read this story as a sociopolitical allegory about how America’s ignorance of its past keeps sabotaging its progress. Do you think that human memory and societal memory are analogous? Even though no single person built the cruel institutions and systems of the past, their effects linger, so although this story presents several kinds of ostensibly helpful wipes (such as for addicts or people with PTSD), can there be healing through forgetting?
At this point, I don’t know if there’s anything that can heal America aside from a total memory wipe of the national consciousness. (What a relief that would be, to be able just to start over.)
During their anniversary celebration, Wash’s wife Mia reveals that although Wash has become a better husband and father since the wipe, she remains conflicted about how she misses the old him, even the bad parts. This echoes with when Wash is grossed out by ballpark hot dogs and realizes that “it was the nostalgia [he was] tasting” for all those years he kept eating them. Even when Mia is faced with a Wash that she can guide towards something closer to the societal ideal, she is still trapped by her desire for the familiar. What do you think it is about nostalgia that so drives people? How do Wash and Mia confront this?
Just earlier this morning I was walking through the Ramble in Central Park, not thinking about anything in particular, when I was suddenly struck by a memory of a specific smell: the tart, pungent, synthetic scent of the pleather seats on the bus that I rode as a child. And a feeling of nostalgia immediately overwhelmed me. The memory hadn’t been triggered by some similar smell in the air around me. The memory had come to me completely randomly. I’ve never smelled that specific scent anywhere other than on that bus. And here’s what mystifies me: As a child, that smell always seemed vaguely horrible to me. I didn’t like riding the bus. The bus was a loud, chaotic, violent, in-between place—something to be endured between school and home. Why do I have a nostalgia for that smell of the pleather seats on the bus? Why does the memory of that smell make me wish I could ride the bus again? I honestly don’t know. Maybe because time is a dimension, and the memory of that smell suddenly shifts that other dimension into perspective, revealing the tremendous depth of my life—remembering how those seats smelled, I can suddenly feel the temporal depth of the past twenty years. There’s something marvelous about that, no matter how terrible the bus was.
Regarding total memory wipes, Wash’s reintroduction supervisor says: “[F]or a life sentence, the numbers [of years] are meaningless. Is it worse when a sixty-year-old dies than when a six-year-old dies? Of course not.” Her comparison isn’t exact, however, because a child has more time and thus more future potential left than an adult. When a wiped criminal returns as a metaphorical six-year-old brain in a sixty-year-old body, the world still bears the scars of his or her crimes, but the criminal has less time left to start over or make amends. By favoring continual restarts rather than reform, might wiping criminals’ minds impede society’s overall progress? While Mia and Wash eventually create a new life together, to what extent is the old Wash “dead” and their new relationship the equivalent of a second marriage?
Yes, wiping criminals’ minds certainly might “impede society’s overall progress”—but would it impede society’s overall progress more or less than the prison-industrial complex? Does the modern prison system make any genuine attempt to “reform”? Or merely to profit?
In the end, Wash succumbs to his curiosity and finds it surprisingly easy to finally research who he was before the wipe, even though it jeopardizes the “better” person he has become and, in turn, his family. Previously in the story, Wash had come perilously close to relapse or even harm—his exhilaration while hunting, when Mia risks enabling a backslide by giving him the rifle, the danger of the tornado—but those events never claim him because his inborn drive isn’t towards cruelty, violence, or destruction. Instead, it’s his inescapable curiosity and the resulting dissatisfaction that set him up for failure. Do you think that curiosity is a value-neutral drive that, in certain unique circumstances like Wash’s, can have unintentionally negative effects? Or is Wash’s kind of curiosity born out of something closer to selfishness or greed, which his reintroduction supervisor says can have a genetic basis? In the end, how much of Wash’s outcome should we put on him, as opposed to a flawed system or a failure of support?
I think any human quality, good or bad, can have “unintentionally negative effects” (and, likewise, unintentionally positive effects). Personally, I don’t know what Wash chooses at the end; I don’t know what Wash should choose at the end, either.
Finally, what’s coming up next for you? Aside from any concrete plans, are there any less-defined ideas or projects that you are embarking on?
Currently, I’m finishing work on a graphic novel, conducting research for a new novel, writing a pilot for FX, and developing a film with Birds of Prey screenwriter/producer Christina Hodson. (Whew, I think that’s everything. Or at least that’s all that I can remember.)
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