The Memory: Interview with Judith Barrow

Fellow author Judith Barrow‘s novel, The Memory, came out this year and I can vouch for it being a gripping and very moving read. I’ve interviewed her about it – well, cornered her and demanded answers – and this is what she had to say.

Q: You’ve written four volumes of a family saga about the Howarth family. Your new book, The Memory, moves into new territory. What is it about?

A: It is new territory for me but families fascinate me; there’s a wealth of human emotions to work with within a family unit so, from that point of view, I don’t think I strayed too far with The Memory. In the Haworth trilogy and prequel, there is still an underlying theme of reactions to a situation. But the difference between those books and this one is that those characters, as well as reacting in a domestic setting, respond to a wider situation; their lives are affected by what is happening in the outside world. In The Memory it is only Irene Hargreaves, the protagonist, that the reader learns about; mainly from the claustrophobic atmosphere she is living in presently, but also through her memories.

But you are right in other ways; it’s a more contemporary book than the others and also it’s written in a different style. The book runs on two timelines: Irene’s life from the age of eight, after her sister is born and her grandmother comes to live with the family because her mother refuses to accept her second daughter, Rose, a Downs Syndrome child. That’s written in past tense. The second timeline, over the last twenty-four hours is written in the present tense and shows Irene’s life as the carer of her mother, who has dementia. Irene is trapped by the love she has for Lilian but which vies with the hatred she feels because of a memory; something she saw many years ago. Driven to despair and exhaustion she believes there is only one solution, one way to escape from the life she is leading.

Q: What inspired it?

A: I don’t know that it was inspired by any one thing. The Memory actually began as a short story I wrote a long time ago, which just grew and, which, in turn, started from a journal that I’d kept from when I was carer for one of my relatives who had dementia. I read many articles on coping with the disease at the time, but writing how I felt then helped tremendously. Writing like that always has; it’s something I did through many years from being a child. Then, during the time I was looking after my aunt, I was asked, by someone who worked for the local branch of the Care in the Community organisation, to write notes about the day-to-day situation of looking after her, for a project they were carrying out.

Another memory was of was a childhood friend of mine; actually the son of one of someone my mother knew. The boy was a Down’s syndrome child, though I didn’t realise then. We would sit on the front doorstep of their house and I would read to him. Or chat; well, I would talk and he would smile and laugh. I didn’t think that it was odd that he never spoke; my mother had told me to entertain him so I took books along or regaled him with stories; things that had happened in school. Thinking about it, I never even wondered why he wasn’t in school either. Anyway, one Monday after school, I went along the lane to their house and the front door was closed. I didn’t understand; one day he was there and the next gone. No one explained that he’d died. I‘m not sure I even understood what that meant anyway. So, I did what I usually did; I wrote about it; how I felt losing a friend. So, from finding the short story in a drawer I was clearing out, and remembering the journals, came The Memory.

Q: Did you find it difficult or refreshing to move on from the Howarths?

A: I’m not sure I have moved on; Mary Haworth is nagging at me to write the last years of her life, so who knows if I’ll give in.

I lived with this family for over a decade and, to be honest, I could have picked any of the other characters and written their story. Each one has existed both within the three books of the trilogy and alongside them; sometimes they disappeared from the main stories and I often wondered what they were doing when I hadn’t got my eye on them.

Q: Did you have to do extensive research or rely on your own experience when dealing with the issues in The Memory?

A: Although I researched extensively for the Haworth series, with The Memory there was little research. I have had first hand knowledge of caring for relatives with dementia; I cared for two of my aunts. One had lived with us a long time before she developed the disease; so I saw the changes in her personality before we lost her. The other was what one would call an “off the wall” character always anyway, so we just went along with how things happened. I relied on how things had happened over the years; I trusted on my experiences as a background for the book.

It was only for Rose, Irene’s sister, a Down’s Syndrome child, that I needed help. Besides reading extensively about the lives and ways of children with special; needs I also have a friend whose husband worked in that sector. He was very generous with his time and with his knowledge.

Q: Is there much of your own childhood in the book?

A: This is a difficult question. In The Memory it was recollections that hovered at the back of my mind constantly as I wrote. The tension and atmosphere that a selfish or perhaps I should say, self-centred parent can bring into a home isn’t something you forget. I know the way the feelings in a room can change when an angry or irritated person walks in. It’s something I’ve always been aware of throughout my life. Writing it into The Memory, as with all my books (although in a different way than I experienced) has helped me to understand what was going on at that time. I have written my autobiography but it caused friction between my sister; an extremely private person, and me. So it’s still sitting in a drawer and will probably never see the light of day.

In The Memory I wanted the story to revolve around two things: the way the memory forces Irene to face it and how she works out what she will do. It’s that memory that has formed the relationship that Irene has with her mother, Lilian. It’s a relationship of distrust, even hatred sometimes but also of a grudging love.

Q: Some of your characters are more lovable than others. Do you feel the need to find something positive in all of them?

A: Well, I don’t think that in real life there are many people who are all bad –or even all good, come to think of it. I always want to get under the skin of all my characters, so I always write what I call a ‘character sheet’ about them: their physical appearance, where they fit into their family and society, their characteristics, work, habits, that kind of thing. I suppose that comes from being a creative writing tutor. Or perhaps it’s something all writers of novels do; I don’t know.

Also, I’m aware that the characters lived a life before I found them; they have backstories that have affected how they are. And we’re back to memories! Who was it said “Memory is a record of your personal experience…through memory you live the life you are living today…” Hmm, perhaps it was me… somewhere. So, yes, I do feel I need to find something positive in all my characters; it makes then as true to the reader as they are to me.

Mind you, sometimes I fail. I do remember Terry Tyler’s comment in her review of A Hundred Tiny Threads: “A moment later I was reintroduced to Bill Howarth (Mr Prologue), a thoroughly unlikeable character who grew increasingly despicable, and all of a sudden I realised I was engrossed. I do love a well-written nasty piece of work, and Judith Barrow has done a masterful job with Howarth. He’d had a bad start in life, yes, but I didn’t pity him; my loathing of him grew more intense as the book progressed.”

Q: Do you find writing a release or a torment?

A: I suppose, like many writers, it can be both. I escape into my writing in difficult personal times; it’s something I’ve managed to do since childhood. So that’s a release. The torment comes when the words don’t flow and I’m pushing the stories along and, all the time knowing that the words are rubbish and I will delete them by the end of the day.

The absolute joy arrives in a flash when I open a manuscript to go over the work I’ve done the day before and I think,’ I don’t remember writing that; it’s quite good.’ Then I can get going on the writing again and I lose myself … and the day… in it. Then it’s a release.

Well, thank you, Judith, for responding to my nagging and I highly recommend the new book.

The Memory
published by Honno Press.
Judith Barrow’s website

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