By Karen Harper
An attorney and former investment banker raising three sons in suburban Connecticut, Wendy Walker has written a novel that blends suspense and harrowing family drama, set in the “picture perfect” town of Fairview, Connecticut. ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN, described as “twisty and spellbinding” by People magazine, was also optioned for development by Reese Witherspoon, who will star in the film.
Please tell us what your book is about.
ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN is about the aftermath of a violent rape in a small New England town when the victim is given a drug to erase her memory of the attack. It was inspired by recent, cutting edge memory science and treatments for trauma that target memory through a process called reconsolidation.
In the novel, an affluent Connecticut family struggles to save their teenage daughter from a gripping depression when her memory of a violent assault is medically erased with a controversial drug. While Jenny Kramer is left with no factual recall of the attack, the emotional memory and knowledge of what happened rages inside her. Her father, Tom, becomes obsessed with the inability to find her attacker and seek justice while her mother, Charlotte, wages her own battle to pretend this horrific event did not touch her perfect family.
As they seek help for their daughter, the fault lines within their marriage, their small, close-knit town, and themselves emerge from the shadows where they have been hidden for years. Tom’s deeply rooted insecurities; Charlotte’s dark secrets from her past–and present; Jenny’s fight for her sanity; and the relentless quest to find the monster who invaded the town of Fairview–or perhaps lives among them–drive the novel to an unexpected conclusion.
Can you tell us a bit about memory reconsolidation? What are the pros and cons of this very real, cutting edge technique to erase memory?
Research into memory science and in particular, reconsolidation has exploded in recent years! At the core of this research is the finding that memories are like files on a compute–they can be recalled and then altered, or perhaps even erased entirely.
Currently, a range of PTSD therapies are being developed which utilize this new understanding about how memory works. Within the first few hours after an event, drugs can be administered to try and block the memory entirely. By interrupting the stabilization process which turns a short term memory into a long term memory, the short term memory can (possibly) be erased. Alternatively, pain medication like morphine or Propofol can be administered so the emotional attachment to the memory is lessened. Theoretically, a victim could remember the event but not have any emotional reaction. For victims whose traumas have already been stabilized into long term memory, the same treatments are given in an attempt to reconsolidate that memory either factually, or by lessening the emotional attachment. As the person recalls the painful memory in a therapeutic setting, the drug or other method is used so that the memory becomes altered before it is re-filed – just like changing a computer file before hitting the save button.
As of this writing, specific long term memories cannot be “zapped” entirely and with precision. But this may very well be possible one day given all that they know about memory storage. It’s really incredible.
Obviously, it’s a huge boost to the book and so thrilling that Reese Witherspoon has taken film rights for the novel. What can you share about that experience so far? Will you have any part in adapting the story for the screen?
Yes! Warner Brothers has acquired the rights to make the film and Reese Witherspoon, with her partner Bruna Papandrea at Pacific Standard Films, will produce. Reese Witherspoon also plans to play Charlotte Kramer. It is a dream team for a novel like this and I could not be more excited!
One of the highlights of this whole experience was speaking with Reese Witherspoon about that vision, and in particular for the character, Charlotte. She was a difficult and complex character to construct and write because I was walking the line of readers loving and hating her. It was extremely gratifying that someone as well-read and discerning of character development as Ms. Witherspoon “got” Charlotte and saw the depth that I was trying to create.
I decided not to take part in the screenwriting process because I was very eager to write my next novel and help launch ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN. I also had tremendous faith in the vision of this team. I know it’s going to be amazing and I can’t wait to be sitting in a seat with popcorn watching!
The cover of ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN suggests angst and movement—seeing something in motion or not quite there. Is there a name for this unique artistic technique? Did you have input in the cover?
The amazing team at St. Martin’s Press did the cover art and I love it! It is meant to mimic the theme of forgetting or erasing, so the image of the girl on the cover is “scrubbed.” I think it adds some intrigue to the book while also staying firmly on-message.
Your career as an attorney in family law sounds as if it would provide a very useful background to write what is sometimes called “domestic suspense.” Can you explain a bit about family law and how it inspires your writing?
The most fulfilling aspect of practicing family law is understanding the psychology of the family members and working out solutions that will be most helpful to them. Sometimes that means creating strategies for a client to manage a difficult ex-spouse, and other times it is about forging a co-parenting situation that will work for the children in actuality, and not just on paper. The range of personalities and emotional issues I encounter are vast. I also received training as a guardian ad litem, which in Connecticut is the person in the case who advocates for the best interests of the children. The psychological dynamics that play out in marriages and families are of great interest to me and find their way into every character and chapter of ALL IS NOT FORGETTEN.
You ask a provocative question on your website, and no doubt, in ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN: If we could choose to remember or forget traumatic events, which would we pick? Do you have any opinion on which most people would choose?
Well, first, let me say that I think there is a huge difference between the trauma therapies that are working to mitigate the emotional part of a traumatic memory, and those that might one day seek to erase the facts of the event. Because I believe that our memories are the basis of our very humanity, that they make us who we are, I know what I would choose for myself. I would choose to remember. However, I would also take advantage of every therapy available to make those memories less emotionally charged.
There are, unfortunately, many cases where trauma victims do not have a factual memory of the events. These men, women and children suffer tremendously from the second-hand knowledge of what occurred and also, very often, from the inability to find their attacker or obtain justice. We cannot underestimate the additional trauma that is caused when an assailant goes free because the victim cannot testify about the events. This would have to inform any decision I made for myself or my children.
I don’t know what other people would choose, but I hope ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN will add to the important dialogue on this topic.
Can you give us an idea of your writing technique? Seat of the pants or planned out? A lot of revision?
I am a plot planner for sure! For ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN, I had different color note cards for each plot line. I kept them in order and then layered them into each chapter. When I read through the first draft, I kept a list of facts that each character learned or revealed and I wrote down numbers next to them as they occurred in the book. I also went back into the manuscript several times to layer in more pieces of the back story for each character to add substance and depth. Their stories consumed my mind entirely for many weeks and new ideas would come throughout the day and night. I would write them down and then go back in and add them when I had time.
When I sat down to write this novel, I thought very carefully about how I could avoid writing something too familiar in the insanely popular genre of psychological thrillers. So I focused on the real world controversial issue of memory science. I also wanted there to be many other subplots that are highly relatable to our everyday lives. There is the Good Charlotte/Bad Charlotte theme. The dynamic between Charlotte and Tom and how it plays out in their marriage. The issues around parenting and the things we would do to protect our children. And the friendship between Jenny and Sean and how people who have suffered in the same way have a bond that transcends gender, age and pretty much everything else. All of these issues are things people face in their own lives and I wanted them to make this book thought provoking as well as entertaining.
I also wanted to create a totally unique structure for the narrative. I designed it to move in different directions, backwards and forwards and sideways, but in a fluid, conversational way. It was my goal to grab the reader, make him or her stop everything else, put away computers and phones and televisions, and focus on the characters and the story and emotions they contain. I plotted very carefully so I could create that feeling of total escape by telling the story in a way that is new, but that feels as seamless as an engrossing conversation with a friend.
I hope I got it right!
Any advice for other writers about how to balance real life with the demands of writing—and promoting? You have teenage boys at home and a writing career. Sounds like a challenge for sure.
I wish I had advice to give! I have been on an incredible but winding journey. I started writing 17 years ago while I was at home raising my children and I never gave up the dream of making it my career one day. When my boys were all in school full time, I went back to work as a lawyer. But I told my sons that it was important to always have a dream, even while doing the responsible thing. So I kept writing, and working, and taking care of my kids, eventually as a single mom. It was not easy. Every free moment was spent writing, and fighting the urge to clean out a closet or balance my checkbook or get to that photo album. There are so many demands being a parent and working a “day job.” Last spring, I decided to make a huge push to write this novel that had been in my head for years. It was a departure from what I had written in the past, so I was extremely nervous about devoting so much time to something so new. But my agent encouraged me to do it and 10 weeks later, I had a manuscript.
I am crossing my fingers that this crazy dream has found its way into reality! I am working harder than ever, though more focused now on writing than being an attorney. And, of course, my kids always come first.
So, maybe, the advice I have is the same advice I give my kids. Every dream, every goal, is built day by day, page by page, brick by brick. If you keep at it, trying to enjoy what you do have while you’re chasing what you don’t have, there is a semblance of balance!
Can you tell us what are you working on next?
Yes! I am working on my next psychological thriller. Here is a little bit about it:
Five years ago, two sisters disappeared into the night. Now, one has returned to tell the dark story of years spent on an Island off the coast of Maine. As the FBI searches for the Island and the sister who did not make it out, we learn about the twisted past the girls endured in their own home before they left – and the truth about where they have been comes under scrutiny. Through the voice of our narrator, the sister who has returned, and the testimony of the Bureau’s forensic psychologist, the stories of past and present converge in an explosive ending.
Wendy Walker is a family law attorney in Connecticut. Prior to her legal career, she worked as a financial analyst at Goldman, Sachs. All Is Not Forgotten is her first psychological thriller. Wendy is currently writing her second thriller and managing a busy household of teenage boys.
To learn more about Wendy, please visit her website.