I think memory can never really be trusted

Emma Healey grew up in London. Elizabeth is Missing is her first novel.

There are two recurring sentences in your novel: “Elizabeth is missing” and “Where is the best place to plant marrows?”, which make me want to ask you: shouldn’t we always trust memory, even the memory of someone who has Alzheimer’s disease?

I think memory can never really be trusted. It’s always so bound up with emotion and that can distort things easily. There was a study which found that if you ask someone whether they’ve had a good or bad life on a sunny day they will give a different answer than they would on a rainy day. Even without those influences I think we remember things differently, or wrongly, all the time, depending on the trigger for the memory, your mood, your current situation. That’s what is so fascinating about memory. In Elizabeth is Missing it was interesting to play around with that and have a character whose memories seem more prone to mistake, but who is still convinced by her own conclusions. And so it’s up to the reader to decide what she’s right about and what she’s got wrong.

How did you deal with the incredible constraint of having a person with memory loss as your narrator?

Sometimes it was difficult. Much fiction relies on a narrator who knows what happened in the last chapter or scene, and occasionally I struggled to find a way to remind the reader of an earlier event without losing Maud’s voice. But in a way I think this helped me more than it hindered. It made the structure tighter, it made me work harder and it gave a frame around which I had to wrap the plot. As a writer you can take your story anywhere, have your characters do anything, and I think all those infinite pathways can be more daunting than one narrow road, however difficult that road might be.

Did the question of genre, suspense and information spreading come up during the writing process?

I didn’t think about the genre of the book until quite late in the process, I mostly read literary fiction and so that’s what I naturally thought I was writing, but I also wanted a bit of mystery in the story and I became aware that this pulled the book in the direction of ‘crime’. Suspense and information spreading were things I tried at first to master through instinct, before realizing that only gets you so far. Again, because Maud couldn’t tell the reader anything about the chapter before, or even refer to something that had recently happened in the present-day narrative, I had to be quite careful to reveal things as she went along without spoiling the story.

Post-war years, trafficking of all kinds, a changing world, the end of childhood… Where do you draw your inspiration to write about so many diverse subjects?

Many of those subjects presented themselves while I was writing, I didn’t necessarily set out to explore them all. For example, the post-war sections fitted with Maud’s age and then became an integral part of the plot, so I found myself studying lots of diaries from the 1940s, reading fiction from that time, taking notes from textbooks and watching old films. If a subject seems important to your story it’s easy to get interested in it and to spend a long time on research. That’s part of the difficulty and the fun – suddenly having to research something you never thought you’d need to know about. It takes patience and stamina, but can be incredibly rewarding. However, I did steer away from even more themes that came up during the process (such as the treatment of older people in care homes), which I felt would weigh the novel down too much.