Interview with Jim Sullivan
Author of The Amnesia Desk
Jim Sullivan is a Cheshire-based author. He grew up in North Wales, which remains a strong influence on his writing.
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What’s The Amnesia Desk about?
- It’s a sci-fi thriller – with an emphasis on the ‘thriller’ – about a British archaeologist (Lee) who takes an experimental drug which releases ancestral memories. Many of these are centuries old, though some come from his father. The memories are all of stressful/dangerous periods – including many battles. One of those memories is something his father did for the CIA, and it causes them to come after him. What the CIA haven’t realised is – Lee now has centuries of fighting experience to draw on.
The Amnesia Desk is a thrilling read, a real page turner. How important was it to you to write with pace and energy?
- So many readers have commented on the pace. I just wrote the kind of book I enjoy reading. It's a bit of escapism - I tried to keep the chapters short and the action moving along.
Energy doesn't just come from action, it's also in the writing style, the jeopardy we find for our characters, the whole adventure.
How would you characterise the book? Is it sci-fi or thriller, for example?
- It’s a thriller. The science component is genuine enough – just after publication, there was a paper in Nature which was remarkably close to some of the science in The Amnesia Desk, but really it’s written as a page turner. Every review uses that phrase – page turner.
In my mind, 'real' sci fi is predominantly concerned with an interesting concept or question. I've simply taken an unusual idea and used it as the setting for a hard-edged thriller, so I don't think I can really claim any sci fi credentials with this book.
What has the reader reaction been?
- Amazing. So positive. People tell me they've been staying up till the small hours to finish it, which is the best compliment an author can receive.
The book has been well received internationally, too - which was a pleasant surprise. I think it's because so many visitors to Britain have fond memories of Chester and Wales. Lots of support in Japan, for example.
I've been a little surprised by how many women have told me they like the book. I guess that's my own unconscious biases coming through - it's a real action book, which I think we sometimes think of as a masculine interest. I'll have a stern word with my unconscious . . .
The book has some violent scenes. Where did you draw the line when writing the book?
- I'm not a fan of violence in fiction (or in real life), but I'm a massive fan of immersive writing. What I've endeavoured to do is to put the reader at the heart of the action. When that's a fight, well, I want the reader to feel that they're in jeopardy.
Reality is vastly more violent than anything in The Amnesia Desk, sadly. For our ancestors, and indeed for most people alive today, the fear of violence was and is pervasive. I'm fortunate to live in 21st century Britain, a fairly gentle place and time - but my ancestors, and yours, faced real threats and somehow made it through. That's the key theme of the book, really.
How real is the science?
- The whole 'inherited memories' idea is fiction - for now, at least. However, in the week of publication there was a paper in Nature about micro RNA being used in a very similar way with mice., which underlines just how rapidly molecular biology is developing. It's as much as a poor sci-fi author can do to keep up!
Much of The Amnesia Desk is set in Chester and North Wales. Why these locations?
- I grew up in North Wales, and Chester was my nearest city, so it just felt like coming home.
They're both right for the story. Chester oozes history, and North Wales speaks to our ancient ancestors. There’s an atmosphere in these locations which I hope I’ve tapped into.
I would encourage any reader to visit the locations - they're all carefully researched, especially the pubs.
Does the book's pace come at a price?
- That's a really good question, a tough question. When we think of literary fiction, we usually picture complex narrative, deep characterisation, maybe a nuanced plot with multiple sub-plots. Action fiction is necessarily more linear, and if we want pace, we have to sacrifice some of the qualities which might get in the way of that pace - so it's simpler, less subtle.
I wrote The Amnesia Desk to give busy people a little enjoyment. For all that, I do think it says something about the human condition.
Could we pick up on that point about the human condition? Without giving too much away, the book suggests that we are more connected to our past than we usually think. Do you feel this is true?
- Oh yes, definitely. Any person is a collection of stories, with vast significance to that person but hardly any significance to the rest of the world. Just imagine how differently you would feel about those experiences and memories if you believed that some of them would be passed on to future generations? And how lovely - and disturbing - to be able to tap into your ancestors' memories and experiences?
- Oh, the sequel - there's a legion of people nagging me!
When archaeologist Lee Jackson takes an experimental drug he starts having vivid hallucinations about the deep past. But are they hallucinations or actual ancestral memories? And why are they dominated by memories of battles?
Meet the Amnesia Desk : a clandestine, ultra-violent group tasked with keeping the CIA's darkest secrets hidden - permanently. But while most of Jackson’s memories are from centuries ago, one is from the recent past, and it’s a threat to the very existence of the CIA.
Jackson has to die.
The Amnesia Desk send their finest to Britain to deal with the threat. But there's something they haven't counted on: Lee Jackson has access to centuries of combat experience. This is a fight the Amnesia Desk wasn't expecting.