In the galaxy of mystery books it’s tough to shine above the rest, but A.J. Banner has done so with The Twilight Wife, offering a fresh take on psychological suspense. This novel doesn’t suffer from some of the human emptiness found in page-turning crime books because it is focused on those universal things – love and memory and truth and recovery – that resonate long after reading. We spoke to author A. J. Banner about her latest novel:
What significance does the title hold to the narrative? Is Kyra a twilight wife? What connotations does the word twilight have for you?
The word twilight suggests falling away into darkness, the strange, dreamlike in-between time, when day isn’t quite finished and night hasn’t quite begun. Kyra hovers in that limbo, not entirely herself without her memory and plunging into a terrifying night as her life unravels. However, she also finds beauty and hope in twilight. She remembers magical nights when she walked the beach and discovered unusual marine species beneath the moonlight. And night always becomes day again. Darkness leads to dawn. She discovers her own inner strength and reclaims her life.
How and when did you first come up with the conceit for the novel? What sparked the initial idea that became the book?
My ideas come from mysterious, deep thermal sea vents. I can never pinpoint the exact origin of a concept. But I do recall having an idea, some time ago, to write a story about a woman who suffers a head injury during a scuba diving accident, and when she awakens, she can no longer recognize faces. She suffers from prosopagnosia. I thought she could discover that the people around her weren’t who they claimed to be. But the problem with this approach was, she would still recognize voices and mannerisms, so she would need to also have lost her memory. Even more problematic: I learned that once a person loses her ability to recognize faces, this ability rarely, if ever, returns. On the other hand, memory is more elastic—it can return. I was still enamored with the idea of a diving accident, and I held on to the idea of memory loss. I live in the rural Pacific Northwest and loved the idea of setting the novel on a remote, rainy, shadowy northwest island, which became integral to the plot.
Kyra and Jacob discuss the nearshore, the volatile confluence of sky, land, and water. How did you learn about this term, and what significance does it hold for you?
At the seashore, I feel most at home and somehow closest to the universe and timelessness. When I read about the nearshore in a marine biology textbook, I thought, This is what I love, this place where sky, ocean, and land come together. I loved the term—it seemed magical—and it seemed appropriate
for Kyra, as she stands at a confluence in her life, at the junction of past, present, and future, where everything in her life is volatile and in flux.
Kyra begins to suspect that the people in her life are holding back important information. Is there ever a time when holding back could be a good thing for another person? Or do you believe that full disclosure is the only way to go?
This is a complex issue. I think the answer depends upon the situation and individual preference. For example, I recently read about a man with terminal cancer who didn’t want to know his prognosis. He seemed calm and content until a doctor told him point-blank that he was dying of cancer. The man became very depressed, rapidly deteriorated, and died. Other people might want the whole truth all the time. On the other hand, if a young child’s dog is killed by a car, will the parent give the child all the horrible details about the dog’s injuries? Perhaps not.
Your first book, The Good Neighbor, also deals with deception and uncovering the truth about those we love. What makes these themes so compelling to you?
As a writer, I find a variety of themes compelling, but the idea of deception is universally fascinating. If a character needs to uncover a dark truth about the people closest to her, or even herself, wouldn’t that keep you turning the pages? I’ve always loved mysteries, from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to Agatha Christie, and psychological suspense is merely an extension of that fascination. Haven’t we all known someone who wasn’t quite who he or she appeared to be? In fiction, deception raises the stakes for the main character, who may find her concept of reality and her very life at risk.
Kyra asks, “Did we seem happy?” How can you tell when a couple seems happy together? Is there anything about the way that Jacob and Kyra interact that makes them seem unhappy? What do you think of the appearance of happiness versus real happiness in a marriage?
I hope it’s impossible to tell, in the beginning of the book, whether Kyra and Jacob were truly happy together. This is part of the story question that creates tension—were they happy or weren’t they? I doubt any marriage is ever always happy. But in our culture, I believe we expect to enjoy some fundamental stability or satisfaction in marriage. People can hide deep, personal secrets never shared with the outside world. For Kyra, the question is, what was wrong and what were her intentions before she lost her memory?
Did you invent the type of amnesia that Kyra suffers from, or is that form of memory loss actually possible? What research did you do to write so realistically from the perspective of someone who can’t trust their own recollections? What was the hardest part about the process of writing an amnesiac character?
Ha, you caught me! I made up the form of memory loss to suit the kind of story I wanted to tell, but from what I’ve learned, forms of amnesia can be complex and indefinable. The brain remains a mystery. The story of the man who lost his memory and started speaking only in Swedish, a language he had never learned—it’s true! I read about his strange life and death. It’s entirely possible to lose both anterograde and retrograde memory, and it’s entirely possible for memories to return. But because I’ve never heard of anyone with Kyra’s form of memory loss, I can’t say whether it’s actually possible.
Were there any interesting details about marine life that you learned while doing research that didn’t make it into the book? Can you share with us?
I learned so many fascinating facts about sea life, I thought I might want to drop writing and become a marine biologist. Just kidding, but seriously, I love the research. Did you know that over nine out of ten coiled (spiral) seashells today are dextral? This means they coil to the right. There are a few sinistral specimens—shells that coil to the left—but they are rare and sought after by shell collectors. To learn the reasons for the abundance of right-coiling shells, read an engrossing book called Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales. She also notes that nobody knows how many mollusk species (she spells it mollusc) exist in the world, but estimates run from 50,000 to 100,000 known and named species.
What symbolism did you see in unearthing the marker for Thymus citriodorus in the old garden? Why did you choose a garden as the safest place for Jacob’s mother?
Spoiler: the garden was the safest place for Jacob’s mother because her abusive husband was allergic to lavender, but also, it was a place where she could focus on the positive, on growth and possibility, on nurturing herself. In the same garden years later, Kyra unwittingly unearths a key to unlocking her own past, and an indication of what her future could hold.
What are you writing now?
I’m writing another novel of psychological suspense, also set in the rainy, remote Pacific Northwest and featuring a woman in jeopardy, who begins to question the sincerity and motives of those closest to her. Hmmm, this is becoming a theme in my novels, isn’t it? But a fun and intriguing theme for readers, I hope! I’m conducting research into the way a small-town detective (not the main character) might investigate a death that may or may not have been murder.