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YA Wednesday: "Unremembered" and Jason Bourne

UnrememberedWhen I picked up Jessica Brody's Unremembered I thought I'd just read a couple pages to get started and then get on to something else.  Five chapters later I had to tear myself away and couldn't wait to get back to it. By the time I reached the end it had become one of our picks for the Best YA Books of March.

The story starts off with a bang, a teenage girl discovered among the wreckage of a plane crash, she's the only survivor and has no idea who she is and neither does anyone else.  Violet, as she is dubbed for the color of her eyes, struggles to find some memory of her past and when a young man appears with shocking information about who she really is, including her real name, Seraphina, she doesn't know what to believe. 

When I read Unremembered it had a very Bourne Identity feel to it, so it was fun to learn about Brody's influences and intentions writing the book.   In the conversation below, Brody chatted with her editor, Janine O`Malley about those influences, sci-fi heroines, and a growing trend in YA--biopunk.  You can read the rest after the jump.

Janine O'Malley: Sera is a great representation of a sci-fi heroine—she’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, and she can kick major butt. How did you create her character?

Jessica Brody: In my mind, Seraphina has always been a cross between Sydney Bristow and Jason Bourne: two of my favorite “kick-butt” characters. I wanted her to be strong, smart, beautiful, but also very vulnerable. Her memory loss often makes her feel helpless and alone.

I always enjoyed seeing the two very different sides of Sydney Bristow’s life in Alias. How she could come home from saving the world and destroying the bad guy and still cry in the bathtub. That duality, to me, is what makes for the most interesting characters.

I’ve also always loved the whole “I don’t remember I’m a superhero” aspect of The Bourne Identity movie and wanted to capture that with Seraphina as well. She doesn’t remember who she is, and so she gets to discover her extraordinary abilities right along with the reader. This was where I got to live vicariously through my character. How many of us have ever fantasized about accidentally stumbling upon some mad skill we didn’t know we had? Every time I try out a new sport, I’m convinced that I’m going to turn out to be some hidden prodigy that the U.S. Olympic team has been waiting to find for centuries. But alas, it has yet to happen.

JO: Sometimes sci-fi characters can be so far from human they’re difficult to relate to. How did you keep that from happening in this book?

JB: This was definitely a challenge for me. Especially when I’m so used to writing the “normal” everyday teen characters that are in my contemporary comedies. I knew that Seraphina was going to be hard to relate to…unless of course you’re an amnesiac supermodel who can run like the wind, calculate like a computer, and speak every language on earth. Then you know exactly how Seraphina is feeling!

I knew I needed a grounding character to secure the book in reality for the reader. That’s why I created Cody, Sera’s socially awkward thirteen-year-old foster brother. Sera is so out of touch with the modern world, it’s sometimes comical. But Cody is the quintessential teen boy who teaches her about everyday things like cell phones, computers, the Internet, sarcasm, and credit cards.

Cody was also like a safety net for me. A little link back to my comfort zone of writing in the contemporary space. Since this is my first dark, mysterious novel, it was nice to have a comic relief like Cody in the picture. Whenever Sera’s story line got too tense or harrowing, Cody could always be counted on to lighten up the mood a bit with a joke.

JO: Unremembered is a great example of what seems to be a growing trend in YA of genetically altered characters. Why do you think this has become a popular topic?

JB: Yes! I’ve noticed this trend, too! Just yesterday I came across a new term (well, it’s new to me, anyway!): biopunk. It’s a subgenre of fiction that focuses on the consequences of a biotechnology revolution like genetic manipulation and synthetic biology and other fringe science. And one of the core elements of biopunk is the struggle of a person or group who are the product of human experimentation. Reading a description of this online gave me the chills. It was so eerily relevant to Unremembered.

I think the popularity of this topic all boils down to technology and our two-sided fascination with it as a culture. Even though we love our gadgets (Um, I can’t enter a room without triple-checking the whereabouts of my phone), I think there’s an inherent fear that technology will take over our lives. This new trend, like many literary trends, is just that fear being played out to the extreme. What if technology went beyond creating things, what if it started creating people?

All of these new books seem to explore this concept: technology vs. Humanity. The ultimate WrestleMania-style showdown. What really makes us human? And at what point (if any) do we lose that humanity to the growing tide of technology?

JO: What were some of your biggest sci-fi influences when writing this book?

JB: Although this is my first sci-fi novel, I’ve been a fan of the genre for years! So I guess you could say I’ve been prepping for this book since I was a kid. Some of my biggest influences came from books, television, and movies. I’m a big fan of J. J. Abrams, who created Alias, Lost, and Fringe. The latter was definitely a huge sci-fi inspiration for me. How far can we push science until we reach a backlash?

Also, after I sold the book but before I started writing it, I read The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson, which really helped me get into the mindset of writing from the perspective of someone who has lost all her memories and whose life has been heavily impacted by science.

And finally, one of my favorite movies of all time is Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman. I love the exploration of engineering “perfect” humans and the consequences of that. This is something I focused on in Unremembered and something that will continue to be a huge focal point in the rest of the trilogy.

JO: Did you feel like you needed to do more research for Unremembered than for your other titles?

JB: Yes! There were a lot of things I researched for this book that I really did enjoy learning about. Particularly the conversation I had with an academically acclaimed mathematics professor where I asked, “What’s a hypothesis or theorem that’s never been proven? Because in my book, my character is going to prove it.” That was a really fun conversation! And I think he had fun helping me come up with one that felt realistic given the elements of the story. But as authors we also need to know when to research and when to take “fictional liberties.” This book (and series) contains plenty of both.

JO: One theme in the book that resonated with me is the idea that our memories don’t reside in our minds, but in our hearts. While I don’t know the exact science on this, I like the notion that our hearts will remember those people we love even if our brains do not. What inspired this theme for you?

JB: This theme emerged about halfway through the first draft. The first book in the trilogy actually started out as an entirely different story where the love story element was more in the background. More of a secondary story line. But as I started to write it, the love story became more and more important until it dominated my thoughts (and the writing) and that’s when I knew it had to be the central focus of the story, as opposed to just a background piece.

The theme that “some memories can’t be erased because they don’t reside in your mind” sprung to life as soon as the focus of the story changed. I’ve always been a big believer in past lives and the fact that our souls can remember much more than our minds do. (Hello! Déjà vu!) And so I thought, if we can feel echoes of a past life, we can certainly feel echoes of a current life, even if all of our memories of that life have been erased. And that idea essentially became the heart of the story.

JO: Let’s talk more about that love story. What made you decide to bring that to the forefront?

JB: Essentially my character needed to be saved. Not in that “damsel in distress” way. But more in a “bringing out her humanity” way.

 My biggest challenge was making Sera three-dimensional. She was, after all, a blank slate. No memories, no past, not even a name. And she behaves much like a robot at the beginning of the story. It was very difficult to make her a living, breathing person who leaps off the page and into the reader’s mind.

So I brought the love story to the forefront. I introduced Zen in the second chapter (instead of much later in the book, as it was in the first draft). I gave Sera someone to fall in love with. Or rather, someone to remember falling in love with. Because according to Zen, they were already in love. Her memory of it had simply been erased. After I made this shift, some of the bigger questions became: Who is this boy? Is he telling the truth? Can I trust him? And, of course, Why do I feel like this whenever I’m around him?

Once that became the focal point of the story, Seraphina came alive.  


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Unremembered sounds like a great book. I loved Alias and the Bourne series so this should be right up my alley! Thanks.

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