“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Today, we are delighted to welcome back to the blog writer Lev AC Rosen. Author of one of Ana’s favourite novels (All Men of Genius), Lev has a new kidlit book out now: The Memory Wall, a lovely story about a kid, his mother, video games and more.
The idea for The Memory Wall came at me pretty randomly, honestly. Ideas I had floating in the air suddenly bobbed closely enough that they snapped together, like how I imagine molecules form from atoms. I think the first idea I had for this book, the thought with real intent behind it, was wanting to write a book about someone playing a video game. Not just because it’s how I spend far too much of my free time, or because I grew up on FF3/6, and still think it’s one of the best narratives out there, but because I love the idea of the video game as a story the player get to tell. Like a choose-your-own-adventure, but much more immersive. New open-world sandbox style games let you create a character and then just go – in some huge, insane world that’s been painstakingly designed to let you do almost anything. When I play those games (my husband and I play them together, handing the controller back and forth) I like to come up with a character, a backstory, a persona – a way of playing. I know not everyone does it that way, but I also know I’m not the only one who does. And I found myself thinking one day “what if I used this as a story?” That is, what if I told two stories – one within the video game, one without, about the player, but the within would be a high fantasy novel. There wouldn’t be players entering the video game through a magic portal, or avatars coming out to teach life lessons, just two stories, able to exist independently, but the high fantasy one given greater context by knowing the story of the player behind the character. That was the seed. To use videogames to explore the relationship between a storyteller and the protagonist they choose to tell a story about – who do they want to be?
I really tried not to use Skyrim as an influence. I know, in retrospect, that sounds completely unbelievable, but another little atom floated too close to my molecule, and while searching for who the player would be, what this book would be about, I kept thinking of East Berlin. East Berlin had been floating in the ether for a while, waiting for something to latch on to. I had this film minor in college, and there were lots of ways to fulfill requirements, but at the suggestion of a friend, I took a class on East German Cinema with her. And it was awesome. I grew up while the Berlin Wall was crumbling – it wasn’t in any of my history books when I was in high school, but I was too young to really understand it while it was happening. I always knew it was a huge event, of course, understood it had something to do with the cold war, knew that Kennedy had said he was a jelly donut, all that, but I’d never really examined it, seen what life was like on the other side, seen what art produced on the other side of the iron curtain was like. But that East German Film class, and then the second one I took the following semester, were just astounding to me. Part of that was totally the teacher, Ms. Hamilton, who was just perfect – one of those teachers who really wanted you to learn and get what she was teaching while not becoming too lenient or chummy. She was passionate without neediness, and smart without being condescending. I went back and visited her once after graduation, and it took her a while, but she remembered me (or pretended to) and that made me really happy. Anyway, as with any class taught by a good teacher, the material stuck with me. And I was thinking about this book, this idea-for-a-book, split down the middle, reality and game, and the more I thought about things being split down the middle, the more I came back to Berlin. It snapped into place.
And that’s when I realized, if it was going to be about Berlin, too, I had to use Germanic mythology. I really didn’t want it to be Skyrim guys. I know I’m protesting too much, but that was my sincere desire. I bought books exclusively on Germanic myth – not Norse. Talked to my godfather, a Germanic mythology expert, but I just kept coming back to the same conclusion: there’s not much difference between Germanic mythology and Norse. Some names, some details, a few folkloric bits, but same DNA. So I was going to have to write about a video game steeped in the same mythology as Skyrim. I had to anti-Skyrim. No dragons, more dwarves… I think I did okay, on that front, in the end. I’ll let you judge. But when my editor bought it, he did make sure to mention he was a huge Skyrim fan.
So maybe not such a success there.
At that point, I had my videogame world (or, at least, it’s seed), and I knew I wanted to deal with the Berlin Wall, but I still didn’t have my player. I decided to write about a guy because I hadn’t really done that yet, and I thought it would be a challenge. Also, I was still thinking of the idea of duality, and living in two worlds. I wanted to emphasize that in who my character was as well. My friends Ann and Amy are multi-racial, and they’d told me once about growing up and never seeing themselves in books. They never asked me to write a book with a multi-racial protagonist, but when I mentioned I was considering it, they were very encouraging. I know now, after much research, there are great middle grade books with multi-racial protagonists, and many of them are by people of color, not white Jews like myself. I’d recommend checking out a lot of them. I’m a fan of Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee, Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon and The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg van Eekhout. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need more diverse books. This book wasn’t going to be about race, but I knew if I was going to make Nick multiracial, I’d have to talk and read and research. I have a lot of multiracial friends who were, thankfully, willing to talk to me, and Amy was actually in the midst of getting her PhD in education with a focus on multiracial education. She gave me a syllabus of academic essays and non-fiction to read. I listened to as many voices as I could, and while I don’t promise that I got everything right, that feeling of being divided, culturally, became a significant part of the book, and worked with a lot of the themes I already had laid out. Knowing that his mom was a German immigrant, his dad a black American, Nick started to take shape. I had the seed of protagonist: Nick whose dad is proud of his black heritage, and whose mom never talks about her past in East Berlin. I imagined that sort of shy, suburban academic kid, nerdy, really into his games.
And then another little atom floated into view – the memory of one of the scariest things that’d ever happened to me: the time my grandma thought I was my grandpa. I’m not saying it was Alzheimer’s, like Nick’s mom has, but we don’t know what it was – she was hit by a car a few weeks later, and killed, but I remember my grandmother, who had never been great with names, calling me by my late Grandfather’s name one day, and my aunt correcting her. “No,” my grandmother said. She wasn’t just mixing up my name – I was named after him, something similar, so that would be fine. But she said “no,” it wasn’t a mix up. I was my grandfather. My aunt and mom told her she was wrong, but grandma got angry, insisting they were wrong, she was right. “No, no no, that’s him!” she shouted. My aunt put her hand on Grandma’s shoulder, calmed her down. A few moments later, everything was normal again. But I was shaken to my core. I was old enough to understand that it wasn’t right, that something had happened, something scary. I remember thinking that night that she was going to die soon. When she was hit by the car, I reassured myself that it was because she was the sort of woman who would never have given up when it was her time, would have kept on going, and so the powers that be sent a car her way to let her know.
I have no idea why I thought of that one, honestly, how it floated over to the molecule of the book, or why it immediately clicked into place. I try not to think about that memory much, and I had definitely never wanted to use it as a story seed. But, it popped into my head as I was examining this little molecule of ideas I had, and then it all came together. I think maybe because it’s a memory about duality, too – about who she was when she was insisting I was my grandfather, and who she was when she was herself again. About who she was alive, and dead. Everything came back to duality. Real life and game. East and West Berlin. Black and white. Aware and not. Alive and not. I named the made up suburb Nick lives in Two Rivers, because I thought it was funny to play up that duality. And by then, I had the book: Nick’s mother goes to live in a home due to her early-onset Alzheimer’s, and Nick, convinced she’s been misdiagnosed, tries to save her, until he finds someone in his game who he thinks is her – is her good side, her not-confused side – telling him how to rescue her, cure her, and give them a happy ending. That molecule was formed. I don’t know if that’s how it works for other people – the floating ideas connecting with a slight electrical charge – but that’s how it happened with me, with this book. It’s definitely one of my more random, complicated book ideas – moreso than even All Men of Genius’ Shakespeare/Wilde/Steampunk mash-up. I think it works, though. I hope. Someone in my writing group asked where the idea came from, and when I explained it all, she said taking disparate ideas like that and putting them together was a sign of genius.
So there you have it, folks: it’s genius. (seriously, please buy my book. I think it came out pretty good).
About the author:
Lev AC Rosen is the author of two books for adults: All Men of Genius (Amazon best of the month, Audie award finalist), and Depth (Amazon book of the year, Finalist for the Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel, Kirkus Best Science Fiction for April), and two books for young readers: Woundabout (illustrated by his brother, Ellis Rosen) and The Memory Wall (forthcoming September 2016). His books have been sold around the world and translated into several different languages, as well as being featured on many best of the year lists.
Lev attended Oberlin College, where he majored in creative writing, and then Sarah Lawrence College, where he received his MFA in fiction. Just after graduating from Oberlin, his short story Painting was the inaugural piece for the ‘New Voices’ section of the renowned Esopus magazine. He has written articles for numerous blogs, including booklifenow and tor.com, and been interviewed by several magazines and blogs including Clarkesworld and USA Today.
Lev is originally from lower Manhattan and now lives in even lower Manhattan, right at the edge, with his husband and very tiny cat.