Interview with Rebecca Mahoney, Author of The Memory Eater

I always start out with the short and sweet: Give us the elevator pitch for The Memory Eater. 

The Memory Eater follows Alana, a girl who's just inherited a very different kind of family business - she's charged with working with a memory-eating monster to purge the unwanted memories of her little beach town. But when Alana's own missing memories lead to the monster's escape, Alana learns that forgetting always comes at a price.

The idea of a monster who can only be satisfied by eating memories is such a powerful one. (Who are we without our memories?) Where did the idea originate? 

I've always loved genre fiction, fantasy and horror (or a mix of both) in particular, for unpacking emotions that aren't easy to explain. And as someone who experiences anxiety and intrusive thoughts, I've definitely had plenty of nights where I wanted to take a thought or a memory and banish it forever. And as I developed The Memory Eater, I wanted to explore the ways in which that wouldn't work. As you said, who are we without our memories? If you forget someone who shaped your life, would you lose all the things they taught you? If you forget your worst mistake, would you make it all over again?

The Memory Eater herself actually came in fairly late in the process - in the earliest drafts, Alana could remove the memories herself. But once I created the Memory Eater, she was exactly what the story was missing. I loved writing the interplay between Alana, who had been dealing with the expectations of Whistler for a relatively short time, versus the Memory Eater, who had been completely warped by them. Understanding Alana, and getting her to where she needed to be, was so much more fun when I could get the Memory Eater to where she needed to be, too.

Your podcast The Bridge also focuses on monsters. I have to ask about where the interest came from. (I’ve always been drawn to ghost stories. Half of the podcasts I subscribe to are paranormal in nature.)

I have to credit my co-creator Alex Brown for that one! We both grew up near the coastline, and the concept of a bridge spanning the Atlantic was her fantastic brainwave. I think you can see a bit of the genesis of The Memory Eater in The Bridge - many of the abandoned places on the titular Transcontinental Bridge were tourist attractions that fell into disrepair, whereas TME's Whistler Beach is a thriving tourist town. I'm really interested in the idea of monsters, for better or worse, trying to gain human acceptance through capitalism - because what better way to seem useful and nonthreatening in America? By the time I created the Memory Eater as a character, I really wanted to take that idea to its terrible conclusion.

Speaking of podcasts, how did working on an audio drama factor into writing The Memory Eater? How has it changed your approach to storytelling?

I love audio drama so much. Like many people, Night Vale was my gateway, which got me into the world of vintage horror radio, as well: there's something so evocative about one lone voice in the dark. I think The Memory Eater is the rare story of mine that doesn't have a direct shoutout to audio drama (both The Valley and the Flood and my current WIP have pivotal scenes with characters listening to a radio) but I still incorporated so much that I learned while working on audio drama - in general, writing in episodic format really fine-tuned my understanding of pacing between chapters. And where written works and audio drama are both non-visual media, both formats get me to consider, in different ways, how to deliver scares without images.

The Memory Eater is an impressive mix of both emotional drama and fast-paced storytelling. Is it hard to balance the two? Or does one simply feed into the other?

It makes me so happy that you said that, because pacing was not always something that came naturally to me! And that's probably why the emotional arc always comes first for me: I do typically have some pivotal scenes in mind going into a first draft, but The Memory Eater fully clicked for me once I knew where Alana and the Memory Eater were going, and how they were going to get each other there. Typically the process of figuring that out does drive the way that the plot comes together, but it also helps that I have several pacing geniuses in my corner who always ask me the tricky questions. My editor Gretchen Durning, my former agent (and beloved friend) Hannah Fergesen, and my brilliant critique partner Julie were invaluable in helping me hash out how things would come to a head in Whistler Beach.

You do such a beautiful job depicting a diverse cast here. How does such a cast help drive the story?

Casual diversity is one of my core tenets when I'm creating a world - and as a queer white woman, some of the characters in The Memory Eater share my identity and some don't. Writing diversely, even when you're writing your own identity, is an act of constant thought: of taking extra care with your casts' interiority and motives, of being aware of the tropes you should avoid echoing, of ensuring that you write with openness, but not with a familiarity or ownership that isn't yours. And while craft isn't the primary goal of writing diversely, a story written with that kind of meticulousness and care is going to be a better story for it.

And in terms of my own identities, it was such a thrill to be able to write the bisexual protagonist and sapphic romance at the heart of The Memory Eater. And after not writing a central romance in The Valley and the Flood, it was so much fun to unleash some of the tropes and dynamic I've been dying to write!

Often, I feel like the frightening forces us to look deeper (when we sometimes only want to look away)! I love what you say about the “unknown can give you the language you need to understand yourself.” Can you say a little about how that idea makes its way into The Memory Eater?

For me, at least, horror is the perfect genre for self-reflection, because it's built for figuring out the kind of physical form that your fear would take. Sometimes that antagonist is one you can defeat, and sometimes the whole point of a horror story is that the antagonist can never be beaten. My favorites tend to be somewhere in the middle: you can't win the way you thought you could, but this is something you can live with, and maybe even understand. And my goal going into The Memory Eater was exactly that: a story where both Alana and the Memory Eater would have to adjust their own ideas of a happy ending as they came to better understand each other.

I’m always interested in how subject and genre merge (genres allow for certain stories to be told). This Memory Eater also turns family secrets into an actual form, puts legs on it and makes it a foe that can literally do battle with. Do you feel the YA genre offered you the perfect platform to tell this particular story (I’m thinking about the need to break from family to form one’s own identity, etc.)

That's exactly why I love YA! And while figuring out where you are as a person, and where you stand in relation to your family, is something we figure out over and over again, I think YA is the perfect medium to dig into it, because even if you encounter these things as an adult, the way that you deal with it is so entwined with the way you learned to deal with things as a child. And while I never want to write an idealized version of those conflicts, because that's not really honest, I do want to offer my teen readers a somewhat gentler space to sort through some of those questions. I may not have answers (I'm still figuring many of these things out myself!) but I can at least reassure readers that what they're feeling is normal.

How does your work in academia play into your work as a writer? Does it affect or inform your process? 

The people-watching aspect of working in academia is unparalleled. I don't base characters on people directly (although I did once name a minor character after an old band teacher) but in the now-four places I've worked, I've come across so many different interests, quirks, and ways of thinking that it does inform the way I approach my supporting casts in particular. My current workplace has monthly mini-presentations where faculty and grad students discuss in-progress research, and it's so cool to hear from people who might look at literature, art, and history in a different way than I would.

And in general, I've found that my own job duties, which are largely administrative, complement my writing work quite well! It flexes a different part of my brain than writing does, and it provides a structure that keeps me diligent about writing when I have time. Plus my coworkers are so sweet and supportive, which mean the world.

What’s next? 

I've got a few irons in the fire at the moment! I'll probably have to keep quiet about most of them for a while, but I can tell you that almost everything I'm working on leans a bit more in the horror direction.


Rebecca Mahoney
is the author of The Valley and the Flood (out now from Razorbill), as well as the forthcoming The Memory Eater (Razorbill 3/14/23), and the co-creator of independent audio drama The Bridge. Rebecca is a strong believer in the cathartic power of all things fantastical and creepy in children’s literature - and she knows firsthand that ghosts, monsters, and the unknown can give you the language you need to understand yourself.

Author Site