Hannah Mary McKinnon, YOU WILL REMEMBER ME

Hannah Mary McKinnon, YOU WILL REMEMBER ME

When author Hannah Mary McKinnon experienced a professional failure, she realized she had an opportunity to pursue what she had always wanted to do: write a book. With her fifth book now out, it’s clear that everything works out for a reason. Hannah’s latest novel, You Will Remember Me, was inspired by a news story about a man who suffered retrograde amnesia and what happens to the people in his life that he forgot.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hannah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss You Will Remember Me.

Hannah Mary McKinnon: Thank you, Zibby. I’m so, so pleased to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: This book, oh, my gosh, so gripping. I couldn’t believe the ending. The whole thing, I just couldn’t believe. I still feel wet from the beginning with my feet all messed up. I feel like I’m in the convenience store with the phone calls and Maya coming. The whole thing, it was so visual and immersive that I feel like I need to get in a warm robe or something like that. That’s how I feel.

Hannah: That’s all the feels, then. I’m pleased.

Zibby: Yes, all the feels. Would you mind just quickly telling people who are listening, what this book is about? Then how did you come up with this whole plot? That’s what I really want to know.

Hannah: Sure, I’d love to. It’s a psychological thriller, You Will Remember Me. It’s my fifth novel. It’s about the story of a man who wakes up on a beach and has no idea who he is or where he is or how he got there. It’s also the story of Lily who goes looking for her boyfriend who went missing after an evening swim. There’s another young woman who’s looking for someone, Maya, who’s searching for her stepbrother, Ash, who up and left town two years prior and hasn’t been seen or heard from again. The question is, is the man from the beach Jack, Ash, neither, or both?

Zibby: I have to say, is there actually the type of amnesia that you wrote about in the book where Jack or Ash or whoever he was could remember just the phone number for Maya, for instance, and not know who it was? Did you have to do a lot of medical research to figure this out? Where did this whole story come from?

Hannah: To answer your very first question, yes, that type of amnesia does exist, retrograde amnesia. Yes, I did an awful lot of research and reading into different cases and disappeared down multiple rabbit holes of cases of amnesia and how it works and how the brain works. The inspiration for the book came from a real-life case of amnesia. A gentleman from Toronto went missing on a ski hill in Lake Placid a number of years ago. He was skiing there with him family, and he just vanished. He disappeared. After they’d searched for him on the ski hill and in the village and everywhere they could think of, they feared that he had possibly fallen and died or had fallen and was dying, I suppose, on the ski hill during a brutal winter. Weirdly, six days later he showed up in Sacramento. I don’t believe he had any ties to Sacramento. He knew that he had got on a truck and ended up in Sacramento. Although, why he went there really wasn’t clear. He was still in his ski gear when he showed up there. The truck driver was never found. He never came forward to say, yes, I was the one who transported this gentleman across the country.

The man who went missing and then showed up in Sacramento, I think he remembered his wife’s, either her name or part of a phone number or the entire phone number. I’m not really sure anymore because my story and his story seemed to blend because that was the kickoff point for You Will Remember Me. There are lots of different types of amnesia: retrograde, where you can only remember from a certain point forward, so you basically lose your history; then there’s, I think it anterograde, I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing that properly, where you remember your past, but every time you wake up, all of the new memories that you’ve created have disappeared. Then there’s another type of amnesia where you lose absolutely everything, but that’s generally because of some psychological trauma. It’s your brain protecting itself. It’s called a fugue state. That generally lasts maybe a few hours or days. It’s absolutely fascinating to look into, I tell you. I spent a lot of time looking at all these cases and deciding what would fit my character best.

Zibby: Wow. To your point about ending up in Sacramento and people just disappearing into thin air, you have this whole line towards the end. “You wouldn’t believe how easy it is for people to just disappear.” That gave me goosebumps, that line, because, gosh, you’re right. There are all these attempts, but in truth, people do just vanish. How do you know if it’s one of these cases or it’s some monkey business?

Hannah: Not children, but adults in particular, if they just vanish — there thousands of adults every year who just decide to leave, just to up and leave everything. There’s birth certificates and passports depending on where you want to go. Canada’s really big, where I live. The US is really big. You need not leave the country. People do, apparently, all the time. They just leave, which is awful for those left behind. The uncertainty, you just don’t know what happened to them. Are they dead? Are they alive? Are they happy? Was it me? Was it them? It’s very rich for writing books. That’s for sure. Lots of material.

Zibby: I recently interviewed an author about this shipwreck. It’s called The Lost Boys of Montauk. It was the same thing. These four men, they just disappeared. They think it was the boat, but there’s no closure. Some of the families left behind refused to believe that they had really died. Then there’s the question even still, what if? This so lack of closure, you obviously have tapped into that extremely well in this story.

Hannah: Thank you.

Zibby: This is a pretty dark tale, really, especially the way it ends up and everything. I understand this is a ripped-from-the-headlines type of a story. It piqued your imagination to read it. It’s another thing to then spend all your time writing it and thinking it through and being in the minds of these characters. What appealed to you about this? What drew you to say, I’m going to spend all my time, this is what I need to write about? Your whole thought process behind it — it’s great. I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t have picked it or something like that.

Hannah: I’m not known for my “everything works out for everybody in the end” endings. Jenny Milchman, a friend of mine, she gave me the title, Queen of Happily Never After, which I thought was hilarious. I’m very drawn to messy characters and messy situations and putting really quite ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances and seeing what happens. It’s two things, I’ve realized. It’s an exploration of the dark side of things and people and how far these seemingly ordinary people will go. It’s also an exploration, for me, to see what that feels like from the safety of my own keyboard. Nobody gets hurt. I’m a rule follower. I always have been. I was the good girl at school. I’d always do my homework on time. If the kids now come back with anything for school, it always gets done right away. I drive the speed limit. I’m a bit of a nerd, really. I’m not a rebel, never have been. I’ve had my moments, but few and far between. Being able to have these characters do these terrible, terrible things is interesting for me to find out, what would that be like? It can be really uncomfortable to go down these dark, Machiavellian roads because that’s just not who I am. I’m a very happy person. I don’t have spies or detectives as primary characters in my books. It’s just your ordinary people and seeing what might happen. When I thought of the premise for You Will Remember Me with the gentleman who went missing, my first instinct was, oh, wow, thank goodness he made it home. Phew. I wonder what happened. Then my second reaction was, but what could’ve gone wrong? That’s the brain of the thriller author, I guess. I find it very interesting.

Zibby: I feel like every time now, I’m thinking, what if this happened? What if this? Oh, that’s another novel. I should write this. Not that I’m going to do it. I’m like, if I were one of the novelists I was interviewing, that would be how I came up with my novel idea. It’s as simple as that, right?

Hannah: Yep, that’s right. Last year’s book, Sister Dear, came from something that I heard on the radio. A woman was looking for the owner of a ring that she’d found at a playground. She was searching for them through social media. The radio got hold of it. There was this segment. My first reaction was, that’s so lovely, but what if the owner had a much better life than her and then she gets jealous and starts stalking her? That’s kind of what the premise is. Not really, but kind of. That’s where that came from. You’re right, it’s the exact same thing. You hear something and you think, ooh, but what if? That could be a romance too. It doesn’t have to be dark.

Zibby: That’s true. How did you even begin writing? What drew you to this profession? How did you start writing novels?

Hannah: My writing career was born out of failure of another. I was in IT recruitment before, very successful. I ended up as the CEO of a Pan-European IT recruitment company. My husband’s Canadian. We decided to move to Canada for a better work-life balance because we had none. We had three kids. We had twins the second time around, three of them in sixteen months. Rob was a stay-at-home dad. It was very difficult. I had a very high-powered career. I didn’t have any time, as is the case for so many. I wouldn’t see the kids much. I would get up before or leave the house before they were up and come home often by the time they were already in bed. I traveled a lot. Rob kept seeing his career slip behind the horizon. With three kids with the school system in Switzerland, it was very difficult for him to ever go back to work. After many discussions, many, many, many, and a few tears on my side, we decided to come to Canada. I started up my own business. It was a spin on HR.

It failed miserably. I mean, crashed and burned and died within its first year of inception. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have that anchor. My career was my anchor. That was who I was. I felt completely lost. When I look back at it now, it’s so ridiculous. I just want to go back and give myself a stern talking to. People who come to Canada who don’t necessarily speak the language, or not to the level I do because it’s mother tongue, have it a lot harder than I do. I want to go back and say, just shut up and take a seat. At the time, I couldn’t see that. My husband Rob, he said, “If you could do anything, what would you do? What would you choose to do?” The question was, did I want to go back to corporate basically in the same situation but no family around, or did I want to try something else? I halfheartedly said, “I’ve kind of always thought that maybe I’d like to write a book.” He said, “Why don’t you do that then? You’re at this crossroads now. If you don’t do it now and see what happens, you might never do it.” And so I did. Here we are.

Zibby: Wow, that’s a great, inspiring story. I’m sorry about your career failure, but I don’t even really view it as a failure after all. How great. It just goes to show, you have to try. The worst things that happen, sometimes they end up being the best things.

Hannah: Yes, that’s right. I think, actually, the fact that the company failed and that that was such a slap around the face — it really was. It hurt. It stung badly, but it made me even more determined to succeed at writing because I didn’t want to feel that failure again. I was determined that this was going to — I made tons of mistakes along the way, I mean tons. It took me a while, but I got there in the end. Yes, the company failed, absolutely, but I learned a lot. Certainty, it gave me a lot of drive to succeed.

Zibby: How did you do it? How did you just say, okay, I’m going to write a book? What kind of mistakes did you make? How did you learn how to do it? This is a really good book. It was tightly written and narrated and kept your attention, and the suspense. You cared about the characters enough, but not too much. How did you learn how to do that?

Hannah: The very first book I wrote was Time After Time. That was a rom-com. That was my first try. Honestly, the idea just came to me. It was forty-year-old, forty-something-or-other woman maybe with some curly brown hair, which I have, who was questioning the decision she’d made in her life and was wondering how things might have turned out had she, for example, married her first ex-boyfriend. She then wakes up married to said ex-boyfriend. She’s the only one who realizes that this is not her life. She’s getting a glimpse. It’s Groundhog Day meets Sliding Doors. That was the premise for it. I wrote the book really quickly. It’s something ridiculous like six weeks. I gave it to my mom who said, “Ooh, this is great.” Then I went out on submission, which is mistake number one. Don’t do that. My mom was great, but she wasn’t going to say, this is everything that’s wrong with it, but the agents did. I got a lot of rejections. Some of the agents were so kind. They were all kind, but some of them went a little bit further and said, “We love the premise, but the execution is flawed.”

I thought, well, I can work on that. If it was the other way around, if they said, it’s a rubbish idea, but you write well, then I’d think, oh, no, I’ve got to come up with a new idea. It gave me validation that they liked the idea and if I reworked the manuscript and I worked really hard, maybe it would get somewhere. That’s what I did. It took a while. I worked on that book for probably two years. I took creative writing classes, which I should’ve done earlier on. I took one online. I took some locally. I did some workshops. Sharing my work with other unpublished authors was really, really helpful because we would critique each other’s work. I learned a lot from them giving me feedback on my stuff, but also on me giving them feedback on theirs, looking at something that I really liked and thinking, how did they do that? I must do this too. I read a lot. It was practice. It was writing some short stories and getting feedback and having people say, yes, this is great, but here’s where you can improve.

I didn’t work in a silo. I didn’t do all of this — sure, yeah, I wrote the manuscript on my own, but then the editing of it, I hired an editor to help me, which was eye-opening. She was from the UK. She pointed out all of the things that I shouldn’t do. I thought, wow, I didn’t know that. When you read something — let’s take clichés. You’re not supposed to use clichés in writing unless you change them around and make them a little bit different or funny or whatever. In the first version of Time After Time, I’d used a ton. She said, “No, no, no, you shouldn’t use clichés.” When you read as a reader, certainly I hadn’t realized that authors don’t use clichés, or not often. If they’re not there, you don’t notice them. That was a mistake I never made again. I learned a lot during the first couple of years of editing that manuscript. Every time I learned something, that’s then acquired. That’s your knowledge. It’s something that you will either never do or always do depending on what it is.

Zibby: Are you working on anything now?

Hannah: I am. Next year’s book is done. That one will publish in May again. I’m really excited about that one because for the first time, I’ve written from the antagonist’s point of view. I’ve done an entire book from a man’s point of view, that was Her Secret Son, already. That was a great experience. This time, I’ve gone a step further. It’s a man called Lucas who has hired a hitman on the dark web to kill his wife. A month later after she’s disappeared and he’s ready to cash in or getting ready to cash in, he receives a partial photograph of her in the post. He doesn’t know who’s messing with him. He doesn’t know what’s going on, what they know, what they don’t know, and what will happen next. It’s very different. It’s still a thriller, but it’s written from the antagonist’s point of view, which was a completely new experience for me. That was a fun one to do. Now I’m plotting book seven for 2023, I think that will be.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What’s the next one called? Do you have a title?

Hannah: We have a working title, but it’s not finalized yet, so I’m not at liberty to say.

Zibby: Maybe it’s not working.

Hannah: Maybe it’s not working. That’s right.

Zibby: You’ve already offered so much advice for aspiring authors. If you had to distill down what you’ve learned and you were telling your younger self, what would you say?

Hannah: I would say, give yourself permission to write — people told me this. Give yourself permission to write a rubbish first draft. I couldn’t get my head around that. The way I like to convey that is to say, it’s a loose draft, a skeleton draft that only you will see. This is not a draft that you’re going to give to anyone. This really is just for you telling yourself the story. Write a skeleton draft. Then layer it and edit it. You can edit a page with words on. You cannot edit a blank page. That was something that I didn’t understand at the beginning. When someone said, give yourself permission to write a rubbish first draft, I thought, but why would I do that if someone’s going to see it? Well, they’re not going to because you’re going to edit it. The other piece of advice that was enlightening for me was when somebody said, if you don’t know what happens in the scene or the chapter that you’re writing, skip ahead. I thought, wow, of course. I’m a heavy plotter, so that really worked for me. Even if people plot as they write, so they plot on the page, and they’re stuck on a scene, but they know what happens at the end because they have that in mind, or three chapters down, come and write that. Nobody said that a book — case in point, You Will Remember Me was not written in the order that it ended up. I wrote the characters. I wrote the man from the beach’s chapters and then Lily’s chapters and then Maya’s chapters and then shuffled them. There was a lot of editing. It was a complicated book to write because of the whole amnesia thing. That was really tough. You could easily skip a couple of chapters and then go back and backfill. What you write two, three chapters down the line might then unlock whatever’s been blocked for the chapter that you’ve been struggling with. That was quite enlightening for me. Skip it, really? It works. It’s very odd.

Zibby: Wow, how interesting that that’s the way you wrote that book.

Hannah: Yes, that was a Mary Kubica tip, actually. Mary’s amazing. I love her work. She doesn’t plot at all. We have the pantsers and the plotters. We have people who plot before they write. Then we have people who plot as they write. Mary plots as she writes. She discovers the story as she’s writing it. She has multiple point-of-view characters. I asked her once, I said, “How do you write those? How do you do that?” She said, “I write the first character first and then the second and then the third, and then I shuffle,” which I think is a brilliant concept to do. It really worked for You Will Remember Me. The fact that she plots on the page and does that just blows my mind. I love Mary. She’s amazing.

Zibby: Hannah, thank you. This was great. Thank you for all the entertainment and suspense in You Will Remember Me. I really appreciate our conversation. Thank you so much.

Hannah: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you. This was so much fun. Thank you.

Zibby: Take care.

Hannah: You too.

Zibby: Thanks. Buh-bye.

Hannah: Bye.

Hannah Mary McKinnon, YOU WILL REMEMBER ME

YOU WILL REMEMBER ME by Hannah Mary McKinnon

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