Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed writing partners, Kirsty Cooper and Steve Johnson, about their new book, What You Don’t Remember. They told me about how they work together, their creative writing process, and what inspired their plot.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Kirsty: I live with my husband, Nick and our two young children. I was a primary teacher, spending most of my career in Early Years, but stopped teaching when I had my eldest. Since having kids, my working life has mainly involved writing. I grew up in Guernsey so spend a lot of time there (pandemics aside) with my family. As well as writing, I love reading, crochet, anything crafty and playing guitar/singing.
Steve: I spent nearly 20 years as a primary teacher, going from full-time in the classroom to part-time and eventually stepping out altogether to concentrate on other work. Married to Katy (also a teacher) with one teenage daughter. Originally from the Black Country and now residing in Yorkshire. I enjoy a bit of reading, writing and running. You’ll find me at a parkrun somewhere most Saturday mornings. Also follow a bit of football (Sheffield Wednesday) and speedway (Cradley Heathens).
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Kirsty: I can’t remember not wanting to write a book. I was always writing stories, poems and creating plays as a child. My mum says that I told her I wanted to be an author when I was very little. I remember writing stories with animal characters and then printing them off and stapling them together. I used to write little songs for each character too. I always wanted to teach as well so I think I imagined using them with my class. My poor little sister used to get bossed around and made to listen to me read them while I pretended to be the teacher.
Steve: Probably from as early as I can remember. I remember writing my own stories when I was a primary school pupil; I was always writing in some form – looking back, I think I did an unusual amount of letter-writing as a kid – to penpals, to aunts that lived more than a couple miles away, even to newspapers or other organisations. Some time in my teens, it must have worked its way onto my ‘bucket list’.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Kirsty: More seriously, I guess it was when I had my first baby. I had given up teaching to be a stay at home mum and was missing the creative side of creating characters and stories in the classroom. I started writing rhyming stories for kids, poems and also started work on a novel for adults (still not finished!) whenever the kids were napping or busy playing. Then professionally, I began writing picture books for an educational publisher which became my day job.
Steve: I suppose more seriously into non-fiction and specifically sports history around university time or just after (even though I studied Computer Science). Knowing there was a niche in speedway books and combining it with my own passion was a way in. My first published book was a biography of speedway world champion and former 1980’s CHiPs TV star, Bruce Penhall. Fiction came later through first writing short stories to read to my daughter then professionally writing for children in a more anonymous capacity for an education publisher.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Both: We had both been encouraging each other with writing projects and challenges before combining for the first time on a BBC Writers Room short form TV script competition. This was at the beginning of the first lockdown in Spring 2020. We wondered whether we could collaborate on something longer and discussed ideas for a full-length novel. From those first ideas in April 2020, we had a finished and final draft to publish roughly a year later. We spent a bit of time learning the ropes in terms of self publishing and coming up with a bit of a marketing plan as well as getting our cover designed. We published What You Don’t Remember in June 2021.
What made you want to write What You Don’t Remember?
Both: We’re both interested in the subject of memories and had engaged in some random conversations in the past about different people seeing things from different perspectives. Does everyone see colours in the same way, for example? We had tossed around many ideas for the book but we kept coming back to this as a premise – what if you could digitally record your memories and see them played back? Would two people see the same event in the same way? What would be the risks and rewards? The concept really stuck with us and we thought it would intrigue readers, too. The story grew from there.
What were your biggest challenges with writing What You Don’t Remember?
Both: Working as co-authors was our challenge and our trump card. The challenges that came with that were the logistics of collaborating over a distance. We co-authored from start to finish without ever once meeting in person. We had to rely on using shared documents for drafts and planning, plus video calls and lots of WhatsApp messages for communicating. We were also going through all the challenges that lockdowns and covid restrictions brought – juggling work with homeschooling, missing families etc sometimes made it hard to find the time and energy to dedicate to the project but that was where the trump card came in. We were both dealing with different things at different times, so even when one of us felt like we didn’t have as much time for it that week, the project still continued with the other person. We were able to motivate and inspire each other, which we believe was the key to seeing it all through.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
We have two main protagonists and the narrative alternates between their perspectives. It naturally worked well for us to each lead on one of those characters. Although the story was well planned together, it was really exciting to receive a chapter from each other and devour the details of what the other person had written or where they had taken the outline ideas.
Steve: In the case of Nate, it was interesting to explore how he would want to support his wife going through a really difficult time, but without really knowing the best way to do it.
Kirsty: I guess Rose is a combination of several women that I know – she has her vulnerable side but also her badass, independent side. The intriguing thing about writing her story was that her grief and experiences had changed her so that the character we were portraying wasn’t herself at the time. If we had got to know her more before tragedy hit, I think we would have seen a very different character. Having recently lost a parent myself, I felt like I could relate to some of the emotions she was feeling and how that state of grief can alter the way you cope with life and the hurdles it throws.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
We have to be careful not to give too much away here but there are a series of Confessions chapters from a main antagonist in the story. We worked more closely together on writing those and they mostly slotted in afterwards. To tell you too much about the antagonist would give away the ending, but inspiration for them came from various places. We wanted to explore how someone could be driven by bitterness, jealousy and obsession with the past.
What is the inciting incident of What You Don’t Remember?
Rose was behind the wheel when a tragic car accident occurred, resulting in the death of her mother. She has since struggled to come to terms with the events and her memory has blanked the moments immediately prior to the collision. The inciting incident in the book occurs when Rose and Nate go to therapy for help with their struggling marriage. The doctor introduces them to a radical new memory therapy, allowing them to record their happiest memories together and watch them back. However, the opportunity incites Rose’s belief that this could be the only hope left to remember why she crashed the car.
What is the main conflict of What You Don’t Remember?
Consider it for yourself for a moment – if you could record your memories and watch them played back to you on screen, would you try it? Would you be willing to relinquish control of what was recorded? Would you watch the memories back with your partner? Would you allow your most intimate thoughts to be exposed to others? This question divides our two protagonists and their differing attitudes and motivations as well as the consequences of the therapy itself all provide conflict throughout the book.
Did you plot What You Don’t Remember in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
We had a pretty detailed outline, developed into a chapter breakdown and we regularly revisited this to restructure as/when needed. We probably needed this more than most due to the co-authoring but it’s how we’re both used to writing in our professional capacity too. It was important that we both had a clear idea of where the story was going and how each chapter would go but we were also really flexible so that the structure could change if we felt the story was naturally evolving in a different direction.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did What You Don’t Remember need?
We are lucky enough to be both involved with writing professionally and often work quite collaboratively in a team. That has helped us both with editing skills and as co-authors, we could be each other’s editor in a way. We always had another pair of eyes on our work and we worked through several later drafts to refine the copy editing, too. We used Pro Writing Aid for the final draft as well to make sure we had everything as tight as we could get it.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Kirsty: Write everyday, even if it is just a paragraph that you will never show anyone. The only way to get good at anything is to practice. I think a lot of people get hung up on the fact that they don’t know what to write or that they feel their vocab/spelling/grammar isn’t good enough. None of that matters if you love creating stories and characters. There are always people that can help to make a manuscript perfect but ideas don’t need to be polished. I would advise anyone who is inspired to write to just get something down on a page. Keep writing, don’t get hung up on the wording of each sentence or paragraph, write from the heart and see where it takes you. Once you have something (anything!) written down then you can spend as much time as you like editing it – you’ve done the hard part. Something is something but nothing is nothing – you can’t edit nothing!
Steve: I have often said this to both children and adults – just write. It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending forever procrastinating or planning in your head and just thinking about what to write. If you get some words down on the page or screen, you have something to work with and refine.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
We are in the very early stages of planning Book 2 but we think we’ve hit upon an idea that we’re both excited about now. It has a real couple of moral dilemmas at the heart and a mysterious situation you can easily imagine yourself in.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Kirsty: It was 100% worth the effort and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s a lifelong ambition come true and to hold the finished book in your hand is incredible. We’ve both said all along that finishing and publishing it would be success and anything else that comes after that is just a bonus so hearing people say that they have enjoyed it is just brilliant. I’ve loved the whole process!
Steve: absolutely! It’s a real ambition that’s been completed. Every time I hear someone say they are reading our book or, better still, that they’ve enjoyed it or couldn’t put it down, it is such a thrill. It was already worth the effort to have reached the stage of completing and publishing. Everything since is a bonus!
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