Author Interview: Tim Wynne-Jones on A Thief in the House of Memory

A Thief in the House of Memory by Tim Wynne-Jones (Farrar, 2005). From the promotional copy: “It’s been six years since sixteen-year-old Dec’s free-spirited mother, Lindy, disappeared. Dec feels so trapped in the present, he’s avoided examining his past. But when an intruder dies in the museum-like family home, the man’s death sends forth tremors that reawaken forgotten memories. Suddenly Dec is flooded with visions of his mother so tangible it’s hard to believe they’re not real. At least Dec has his best friend – gifted, funny Ezra – to help him sort out what’s real and what isn’t. But as Dec’s dream visions of his mother turn into nightmares, Ezra announces he’s going away, leaving Dec haunted by questions that must be answered. What did happen to his mother? And who really is the thief in the house of memory? In this masterful new novel, Tim Wynne-Jones explores with wit, compassion, and humor the fictional territory he knows best – the prickly ties that bind families, the murky connections between imagination and real life.”

What was the initial inspiration for creating this book?

I guess the initial inspiration came over twenty years ago when I was an instructor at a writing workshop at the Banff School of Arts in the Canadian Rockies. A thirty-something student wrote a memoir of when she was a little girl of five or six, playing with her dolls in the front hall of the house and catching bits of stray conversation between her dad and mom as they came and went. It was very vivid and very tense. In the middle of the class response, the student suddenly burst out, “Oh, my mother was having an affair!” Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that if you can recall, accurately and deeply, an event from your childhood, your mature mind will be able to interpret data that your young mind could not have understood. That’s the basis of Thief.

I guess I’m also obsessed by House since we never stayed in one place more than a couple of years when I was growing up. I don’t think of myself as being very material but I am aware that there is a lot of stuff from my past that has been left behind — stuff full of memories.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

It took a year and ten months to write Thief and thirteen drafts. I usually start to write a novel when I have a scene or an image that intrigues me and a character I like. I never plot or outline — I want the story to unfold as I write. But in this case, I had an “idea.” Hmmm. Sounds good but where to begin? Here’s the idea conceived while washing the dishes: What if you used to live in a house so big that you never had to throw anything away and so you had every pair of shoes you ever owned, and every halloween costume, etcetera. But you moved out of the house when your mother left and now, when you return, you find a dead body in the front hall.

Thief came out a dry period (The well was good and empty!) where I had written two novels — one adult, one young adult — both of which were soundly rejected. After twenty-four books, rejection letters are a little disturbing. So I was on the rebound, so to speak, and wrote very gingerly. I wasn’t exactly insecure but smarting. The thing was, I knew I was in the zone with this — it was my kind of book. But it wasn’t an easy book to unlock.

Major events? I started teaching at Vermont College. How great is that?

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?

Oops! I guess my last answer already addressed the major challenge question. But let me explain further. The biggest problem was in creating a believable set of characters to act out this little drama. Idea can be a stranglehold. Like Theme, it can be very dry and lifeless. My protagonist went through a lengthy casting session before Declan came along. His precursor, Ray, was really boring and didn’t have any friends. Finding some friends helped me to understand who he really was. It seems weird, after the fact, to realize how long it took to come up with him wanting to be an architect when he grew up, since that was my fondest dream from the age of eleven. It worked perfectly in this story. I also struggled with motivation, until I introduced Dec’s step mother. Suddenly, I realized I had a Dad who lived in the past, a new mom who lived in the present and a protagonist who longed for the future and somehow that helped me get the sparks flying.

I also got hung up on the logistics of an inquest into a suspicious death. I didn’t want to bring the cops into the story and in trying to avoid that I got hugely lost! When I finally talked to a coroner about how such a case might be handled, with regards to a minor, especially, I realized that there was a technical loop hole that worked perfectly for me. Dec could be blocked from attending the inquest. Yahoo! A little research can save you a whole lot of trouble.