Monday, July 17, 2017

Surrounded by Unreliable Narrators: Jeff Abbott

Jeff Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen novels. He is the winner of an International Thriller Writers Award (for the Sam Capra thriller The Last Minute) and is a three-time nominee for the Edgar award. He lives in Austin with his family. 

I asked Jeff for a guest post a few weeks ago, but given the devasting loss of his home last week, I was surprised he found time to write this post. Jeff lost his home and all it contained to a fire caused by a lightning strike. His family is safe, but there was considerable damage and loss. I, along with the entire mystery community, encourage you to purchase Blame now (it publishes tomorrow) as a way of helping Jeff and his family. You'll love the novel. Thanks, Jeff, for writing Blame and for writing a guest post for Mystery Fanfare. Wishing you the very best at this difficult time.

Jeff Abbott:
Surrounded by Unreliable Narrators

When I decided to write BLAME, a novel about an amnesiac trying to solve her own attempted murder, my starting point was how Hollywood treats amnesia—often as a temporary condition that magically goes away at critical plot points. But I found there is as much drama and suspense in treating amnesia realistically—in having a protagonist who must rely on the world to explain her past. Because sometimes the world is full of people with an agenda.

I didn’t want to get bogged down in the technical aspects of amnesia in terms of brain function when writing about the condition for BLAME. It didn’t sound right for the voice of Jane Norton, a once-promising student who was the driver in a terrible one-car crash that killed her neighbor, David Hall, and who two years later is an amnesiac living on the streets of Austin. Jane has self-exiled from the wealthy suburb she grew up in. When someone posts to her abandoned Facebook page that they “know what she claims to have forgotten” and the menacing promise “all will pay”, Jane decides to investigate herself the accident that robbed her of her memory. So in researching Jane, I read firsthand accounts of amnesiacs: from a young mother who shielded her child from a falling ceiling fan and then forgot she even had children to a businessman who slipped in a bathroom and hit his head, returning to a business he had no memory of running and a wife and children he had no memory of loving.

And this struck me: the amnesia was a chance for those around the patient, for good or bad, to entirely shape the patient’s view of themselves. They could be honest or be deceptive; they could be direct or manipulative; they could be kind or cruel. A husband who tries to reshape a wife into what he wants her to be; a mother who insists her child is the way she’s always viewed him or her, without regard to reality.

One of the most popular tropes in recent suspense fiction has been the “unreliable narrator”—the central character who tells a compelling story but may not be telling the reader the whole truth. I realized in my research that amnesiacs can be surrounded by unreliable narrators—people who may have a motive, and a means, to shape the amnesiac’s “truth” to their own means. So Jane was a protagonist surrounded by unreliable narrators—friends, neighbors, family, all of whom had good reason for concealing elements of that fateful night from her. Out of shame, or fear, or guilt.

So what at first seemed to me a simple (and for me as a writer, fun) inversion of a suspense novel staple became a more detailed story involving the nature of memory (and how it shapes us), the relationship between guilt and blame, and one young woman’s rediscovery of who she really is—and who she really was, in that forgotten past. The suspense derives from Jane overcoming the unreliable narrators to arrive at the real truth. Jane has to solve the mystery not only of the crash, but the mystery of herself. To me that made her much more of a believable amnesiac than the versions we sometimes see on television.


Patricia Stoltey said...

Jeff, thanks for writing this post at such a difficult time. You and your family have your hands full, but you have a lot of people wishing you well. Hopefully that's at least a small comfort.

Unreliable narrators create a wonderful puzzle for the reader. I'm looking forward to reading Blame.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Jeff, I'm so sorry to hear about your home, but glad y'all are OK. Good luck on the launch of your new novel.

And thanks for the explanation of the "unreliable narrator." I've never really understood the concept til now.


bobbi c.
Out in the Taylor, TX boondocks :-)